In a pot by the door, a pot only a little larger than a goose, a greylag goose, Anser anser has laid an egg. She must have been balanced precariously, then, mission accomplished, took time to tuck the egg into the compost, arranging the leaves of the tulip over it. We puzzle at the strangeness of the choice. The river runs on the other side of the house and there are fields and rushy channels which provide abundant nesting sites. Perhaps she was “caught short”, but that too seems unlikely. There is something too deliberate about the placing of the egg and the arrangement of cover. It looks as if the pot was chosen. It is a timely reminder that we can garden for others and not just for ourselves. That every arrangement we make of plants and hard materials, can be used by different species for their advantage. I have spent many a happy time watching mason bees exploiting the porosity of old lime mortar in a south-facing garden wall, tunnelling in to the wall’s very core and exploiting its protection and warmth. Or the blackbirds which would visit the rill on a hot summer’s afternoon, bathing in the shallow water before retreating refreshed to a perch, invariably to sing. And my hound, Floyd, who over the course of the day will migrate between sunlight and shade as the temperature waxes, following the best conditions for sleeping. The trees and shrubs which form his bower were not chosen with him in mind, but he finds them perfectly amenable.
It is timely too, because it is Easter, and eggs signify new life in many traditions, not only the Christian. In a museum in Newcastle-upon Tyne, there is a Roman era stone relief recovered from Housesteads Fort on Hadrian’s Wall. It depicts Mithras, being born from a cosmic egg. I find it fascinating that a Persian deity adopted by the Romans should be carved in local sandstone at the most northerly point of the empire. But then, worshipping a lord of light probably helped preserve the memories and dreams of the Mediterranean sun. As March turns to April and half the country is still gripped with snow and the remaining half with constant rain, summer seems like an elusive dream.
The male fern populates my nightmares. They cluster together in corners and under shrubs like nests of massive spiders, with their legs pulled tightly into their bodies ready to pounce. The rachis, the ‘spine’ of the frond is covered with hairy brown scales or ramenta near the base which only adds to their arachnid character. Although it is not carnivorous like a Venus fly trap, it is easy to imagine it catching frogs and mice, grabbing them with its fronds, closing over them, embracing them in a slow proteolytic death.
Dryopteris affinis is semi-evergreen, but in the garden it is best to cut the fronds down in autumn as they grow tatty with age and break in the winter storms. This reveals the coppery crowns which look so spider-like. It also prepares one of the great anticipations of the gardening year. In spring, the rising turgor unfurls the crozier fronds with all the beauty of a flower slowly opening over a fortnight. As the fronds grow around a central rhizome, the fern in summer is a handsome ‘shuttlecock’ standing proudly to as much as 1.5m/5′ tall.
Dryopteris affinis is an unusual edition of these postcards as it is native to the British Isles. It grows in the wetter parts of western France too and even down into the Caucasus region, but the further south it goes and the drier it gets, the higher is climbs up the hillsides. Moisture, both in the ground and in the air, is its determining factor. With plenty of water it will grow in all soils and in full sun, although in the wild it is most frequently found in deciduous woodland. It is useful in the garden to bring height and texture to that difficult damp, shady corner. It can be a useful foil behind Helleborus niger or Cyclamen coum too.
The male fern is not male, of course. It is hermaphrodite like most other ferns. Its gendered common name is a reflection of historic social attitudes. It is a male fern with sturdy, upright fronds, coarse pinnae, and a hairy bottom. The ‘lady ferns’ of genus Athyrium are more delicately constituted and less hirsute.
I returned to Oxford after a week in the north. Spring had arrived in my absence. In the hedgerows of Port Meadow the blackthorns were clouds of white blossom, whilst in the University Parks, carpets of purple crocus lined the paths. I went in search of my Pulmonaria and I found it at last, hiding under the skirts of shrubs in the borders, like shy chicks beneath a hen.
Pulmonaria officinalis, or common lungwort, is so named because the spotted leaves were said to resemble diseased lungs. In the era of sympathetic magic or the Doctrine of Signatures, depending on which side of the theological divide you found yourself, plants were believed to carry signs indicative of their usefulness. The cemeteries of Europe and beyond are littered with the results of this belief, but like many beliefs, it is highly resistant to contra-indications. It is still possible to buy a tincture of Pulmonaria officinalis for chest complaints. I pass no judgment on its efficacy.
Pulmonaria officinalis is a plant with an unusually large number of common names. Some, like Adam and Eve or Soldiers and Sailors seem to refer to the different coloured flowers borne on the same plant. I believe this is an expression of a pH change within the maturing flower from alkaline (pink) to acidic (blue), although this charming characteristic has been bred out in cultivars such as Sissinghurst White and Blue Ensign. Spotted Dog refers to the leaves, whilst most of the others have Christian associations, which I assume is indicative of its importance to the medieval monastic herbalists – note the officinalis again. An incomplete list includes, Jerusalem Sage, Bedlam (Bethlehem) Cowslip, Jerusalem Cowslip, Sage of Bethlehem, Mary’s Honeysuckle, Mary’s Tears, Lady’s Cowslip, and Lady’s Milk.
By whichever name it is known, it is most useful in the garden. It covers the ground nicely in shade and semi-shade and is hardy down to -20 Celsius. The lovely flowers in pink and blue, are a valuable early food-source for bees which start to fly once the thermometer rises above 6 degrees. The spotted leaves are pretty enough if one is not thinking of diseased lungs, although they are prone to powdery mildew in dry conditions. No matter, just cut them off and give the plant a good water, and new fresh leaves will grow.
The garden holds its breath against the cold and everything is still. Spring is coiled, waiting patiently like a dog on its bed with its nose tucked into its tail, waiting for the word. Snow lingers in pockets and frost greets each morning. I am less patient. I have been looking for Pulmonaria in flower for the last fortnight – it is one of those plants which signals the turn of the year, but it is still a week or ten days away.
I take my breakfast coffee out into my friends’ garden and walk the perimeter with the dogs. The morning sun picks out the bright white bark of Betula ermanii, Erman’s birch. I planted a pair twelve years ago next to the drive, in soil which is little better than sand. They were 1.8m/6′ when they were planted and are close to three times that height now. Birch are short-lived by the standard of trees, and quick to mature. Erman’s birch can reach its full height of 12m/70′ within twenty years in a temperate climate. It is native to NE Asia – deep, cold Asia – and will survive anything the British climate can throw at it. In the last couple of years, the bark of this pair has started to peel, curling away in strips which are bright copper on the reverse. They have all the space they need and have suffered no accidents, so their crowns are even and attractive. If ever I have a spare piece of ground, something in the order of a third or half an acre, I would like to plant it with a mixture of Betula ermanii and Amelanchier canadensis, evenly spaced. The shorter, round-headed Amelanchier would look splendid among the taller, more upright birch. It would be a joy in spring when the Amelanchier is covered in delicate white flowers, and I would plant the sward below with lilac Crocus tommasinianus. It would be a joy in autumn too when the birch is dressed in buttery gold, and its companion in shades of yellow to red. I will call my glade something portentous like the Garden of Cadmus, because here, in my half acre, these natives of Russia and North America will live in beautiful harmony.
As I stand, looking at the birch, feeling the morning sun warm on my back, I am filled with hope. I am 44, but the speed at which these trees grow means there is still time for me to plant such a garden and to see it mature. The catkins are well-developed and will open any day now, and in the field above the house I can hear a skylark raising its song high into the air.
I have walked across the city, searching her gardens for what I seek, but I am too late. Snow flowers everywhere in forgetful white and sound seems to belong to another place. Except for the sharp wind which cuts my ears, I hear nothing. I find my way to the cloister where I am sheltered from the storm, although I see its violence in the swirling snow. I walk its circuit, watching the blizzard through the arches of the stone tracery, but hearing nothing, not even the wind, as if the world is very far away. This was why the cloister was built after all – to allow the scholars to exercise in bad weather. There was no question that exercise was necessary, and healthy for mental exertion too.
A cloister is one of those rare human artefacts which performs the same function in opposing conditions, like an umbrella-parasol. In this wet northern island, a cloister provides shelter from the rain and snow, whilst further south it is the fierce sun it shades. It is a Gibsonian affordance: its structure enables exercise in intemperate conditions and invites me to walk. I walk. And think. It’s protection is all around me, I am cloistered within walls and gates which are themselves within walls and gates. It is an enclosed and guarded space, but it is not a prison. The arcade of the cloister draws my feet and my thoughts onwards. There are no windows to the outer world and the arches open inwards onto a garden. It is a sacred space in the purest sense: a space set aside and special. Only a blackbird disturbs the stillness as it picks the leaf litter under the holm oak in search of food. The holm oak, Quercus ilex, is magnificent. Holm is an archaic word for holly, which is recorded in the botanical ilex. The leaves are not prickled, but the tree is evergreen. It was planted in the nineteenth-century so is a mere juvenile of its kind, but it has a presence which makes it worthy of veneration. It is known to millions worldwide having starred in a popular film. Fame has not turned its head.
I feel the cloister’s history as I walk. It is not a sense of going back in time, but that all of its time is here present to me. The ground level is the same as it was when it was built in AD1389 and the patina of time has been gentle on the stone. Even the carved graffiti connects me with the unknown lives who have walked there before me, and who, like me may walk there again, although I leave no trace. The memorial stones embedded in the paving and walls mark the lives of those whose walks have ceased.
We arrived after dark, as I remember it. The villa was an hour’s drive from Florence, high in the Tuscan hills. It had taken us two hours to get there, having spent an hour trying and failing to leave the city in the right direction. We were hungry and tired, stressed and irritable. We walked through the property and out onto the terrace where we were assailed by the scent of rosemary. The air was thick with it – the day must have been hot – and the essential oils were rich and resinous. The source was a low hedge which bordered the outer edge of the paving; a dense, thick-growing hedge of Rosmarinus officinalis. The dear owners had left a bottle of wine, a loaf of homemade bread, and some local sheep’s cheese for us. We carried it outside and dined like kings.
It is hard not to be envious of the Italians. the fecundity of the soil and the generosity of the climate gifts them such immense vegetable riches. The rosemary of our terrace was so strongly scented that we almost mistook it in the dark for that other Mediterranean star, myrtle. All week, we ate rabbit and wild boar dishes flavoured with rosemary and thyme, and the complexity of flavour which these herbs added was unlike anything we could achieve in England with the same ingredients. Our rosemary just never has the sustained heat to thrive in that way, nor have I ever been able to grow such a dense hedge with it. I consider it a ‘dry and spicy’ herb akin to bay, and it pairs well with meat or roasted vegetables such as potato and butternut squash.
The ‘officinalis’ of the name indicates that this is a herb which was valued for its medicinal uses, whilst Rosmarinus translates as ‘dew of the sea’. I, clearly, have been to the wrong parts of the Mediterranean as I have never seen it growing wild on the coastline as I would expect. The hard, needle-like leaf would make it salt-tolerant though. It also prefers light, well-drained soils and is tremendously drought resistant. I always find a place for it in the garden, preferably somewhere I will pass frequently and will brush against it, or can tease it between my fingers. Cooked or raw, eaten or inhaled, I find rosemary comforting and nourishing to the spirit. Like all evergreens, it carries the garden through winter, and its habit of flowering at almost any time of year brings little points of colour to a dark day. There are upright forms which are striking in pots and good for a small space such as a balcony, and prostrate cultivars which tumble nicely over a wall, although I have never found these as hardy. Mine is flowering now, with blossoms like little flakes of Italian sky, promising summer.
There is an old saying, ‘plant pears for heirs’ and it is certainly true that gardening is, more often than not, an exercise in delayed gratification. The duration of the delay differs depending on what is being planted, but instant results are few and far between. I have needed to remind myself of this every autumn when I have been planting Cyclamen coum. The tubers arrive from the wholesaler, looking dead and starting to wizen like forgotten potatoes. The day before I am intending to plant them, I pop them in a bucket and fill it with water and by the next morning they have plumped into flattened doughnuts of still dead-looking, slightly scaly brown lumps. They are very unpromising.
I plant them 5cm/2″ deep under trees and in the front of shrub beds as they prefer semi-shade. Planting them at that depth ensures that they don’t dry out or get disturbed, but they seem to move themselves to the surface, and certainly those which grow by themselves from seed are always thus. It is not always easy to plant Cyclamen. The tubers produce roots from the bottom and flowers and leaves from the top, but in their dormant state, it can be tricky to tell which way is up. It becomes an exercise in self-forgiveness as I know I will make mistakes. I plant them and forget about them, and the cycle of the year moves on.
Cyclamen coum is native to the Caucasus with a separate population through the Lebanon and down into Israel. It tolerates all soils and is hardy down to -15 Celsius, although its preference for growing under trees and shrubs means it gains further protection from the cold. Its common name eastern sowbread suggests it has had a traditional role in pig-husbandry, when woodland grazing was the norm rather than the exception. In the English garden, mice, voles, and grey squirrels are the most frequent consumers.
In late winter, on a sunny day, when I am out in the garden mooching, there they are suddenly, my forgotten landmines of colour, exploding in bright sparks of magenta and pink, bringing light to shady corners. Lines of R.S Thomas’s poem The Garden come to mind – these are, The silent detonations/ Of power wielded without sin. And I remember past loves, and smile in my solitude.