Tag Archives: plants

A Year in Beadnell

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I’ve mentioned visiting Lisa and Mel during their year in residence at Beadnell before and posted a log on their lovely blog. For this new publication, I’ve written a poem from my time there – about the Rosebay Willowherb growing in the dunes.  Do come along to the Lit & Phil, if you can make it, on 12th April.  I’m sure it’ll be a rich and interesting evening.   Look forward to seeing you there.

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New Shoots

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For some reason the rabbits seem to be letting my spring bulbs alone this year.  I’d planted everything in pots for easy removal if necessary but, touch wood, no sign of damage so far.  It’s very heartening to see some colour up here after our long subdued winter.  And the sunshine these past few days has softened the blow of returning from Rome and missing its irrepressible light and crumbling grandeur – an unequivocal primavera.

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Some bright new things to let you know about – a couple of readings and a new digital publication.

On Thursday 30th April at 1pm I will be reading from another wild at the Robinson Gay Gallery in Hexham for the Book Festival.  My collaborator, the artist Birtley Aris, will be there and Sue Dunne will be playing the Northumbrian pipes.  The Gallery will be showing some of Birtley’s original drawings for the book.

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At Burnlaw Centre in Whitfield, near Allendale, on Friday 1st May, three of us will be reading from and talking about our new books connected with the land – Malcolm Green, Peter Please and myself.  It starts at 7.30pm and it is rumoured there will be copious quantities of tea and cake.

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Mslexia magazine have just launched the first in a new series of e-books.  Poetic Forms is a revised and extended collection of a sequence of articles on the crafting of fixed forms commissioned back when the magazine started in the late 1990s.  A lot of people have told me how useful they’ve found these pieces and I have continued to use them in workshops and tutorials so I’d definitely recommend you download a copy if you’re at all interested.  A second e-book based on my First Principles series will be available next month.  You can find out more here.

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The Perfect Imperfect Garden

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A little lost, trying to find the place in Pisa I’m staying, I come across the Orto Botanico by accident – a tantalizing glimpse through statuesque iron gates. The back entrance is locked but here, now in the heart of this dusty terracotta, lemon and grey city I can see green spilling everywhere – ginkgo, oak, plane, palm – and people walking around clutching plans, looking back and forth between paper and tree. The information I’d read had said the garden was closed on Saturday afternoons and Sundays. This, like many other things, proves to be wrong.

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Every day they let me in for free and I walk through the shady lodge into a dazzle of sunlight. The first view, the central square – Piazza Arcangeli – is a carefully composed picture of glaring white gravel, an ivy fringed pond, with a semi-circle of oddly tame purple and yellow pansies, and two monumental Chilean wine palms, planted in the 19th century when the grand building that houses the University’s School of Biology was also built. The sweet scent of jasmine permeates the air and acts like a spell. Now you are entering Garden Time – things happen differently here.

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To my left, south, is the oldest part of the garden, established here in 1591, having moved from two earlier sites in the city since it was founded in 1543. The first surviving design dates from 1723 and this is more or less as it stands today, with just a few changes. A dense mood of continuity and tradition hangs over everything – comforting and stultifying.

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In the Myrtle Garden medicinal plants are arranged in ceramic pots on stone staging like guests at the theatre – guests who’ve forgotten to wear their best clothes. The rosemary and sage need no special attention: they would grow wild given half the chance. Many of the others are thirsty, sulking, distracted by weeds. I enjoy the big old myrtle though, remembering my midwife back in the early ’80s when I gave birth to my sons at home – brisk, no-nonsense, with a heart of gold. How does a girl born in the chilly North Tyne valley on the cusp of the twentieth century end up being called Myrtle? I invent an Italian honeymoon for her parents – wish them an unlocked garden, the fragrance of jasmine, the excitement of sparrows and the sinuous darting of lizards.

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In the Cedar Garden the original cedar is missing – as is the heart of the oldest magnolia in Tuscany, braced by three iron props, thick glossy leaves burgeoning anyway – venerable, perfectly imperfect. Who says a heart needs to be visible to stay strong?

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I see my first ever flower on a tulip tree, eat my first loquat, plucked from a just-in-reach branch – sharp and juicy – and find a maroon blossom also new to me. The petals look and feel as if they are made of flocked card, curled up in the heat of the sun. The label tells me it is Calycanthus floridus, a native of North America.

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The far end of this part of the garden is marked by the extraordinary ‘grotesque’ façade of what is now the Botanical Museum. The site of the old entrance on Via Santa Maria, it was decorated to celebrate the dynastic marriage between a Medici and a Lorraine in 1752. Next to it, the traditional ochre-coloured stucco is fading and peeling. Dark green shutters keep out the powerful sun. Climbing pink roses spike the eye. All these colours shouldn’t go together, but they do – Italian style so often brash, extravagant, excessive.

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To the north of the School of Biology lies the Orto Nuovo and the Arboretum – a less formal planting of many varieties of trees and a massive stand of bamboo in a landscape more like a park than a botanical garden. There is a small pool with waterlilies, fish and turtles. Students sit around it to work, eat, flirt – often all three at once: pleasure such a necessary thread in the texture of any Italian day or night. There’s a low hill from which you can see the top of the Leaning Tower up on the Field of Miracles and the dome of the Cathedral, pleated like a giant seedhead against the backdrop of the sky.

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Time passes. What is a week might be a month. I am bitten on the ankles by mosquitoes. I take photographs of beetles, striped red and black like the coats of arms of Italian aristocrats. I drink cool pear juice from the vending machine. Roberta shows me the wooden doors from the old entrance – carved panels of Aloe, Belladonna, Verbascum and Crown Imperial (the garden’s emblem). Tree surgeons work very slowly, lopping off the topmost branches of the oldest highest trees, stacking great mounds of wood beneath them. I make friends with the garden cat, ginger and white and luxuriant. I feel honoured, special, until the next day I see him languishing, faithless, alongside a young student under the red chestnut tree.

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A Swedish visitor asks me if I know why the garden is so neglected, why the students aren’t set to weeding. Two days later I see a small group of girls hoeing and hooking up weeds in a corner of the Myrtle Garden. I find the strangest, largest wisteria ever – root and stem rearing like a dragon to climb the nearby trees. I discover the name Hortense comes from the Italian for hydrangea. The new glasshouses are three years behind schedule and several species of plants have died waiting. I sit beneath a eucalyptus, calmed by its familiar reassuring smell, the little moons of its fallen leaves. My skin turns pink and freckled. I think about history, my own and the garden’s. I press leaves and flowers between the pages of my notebook.

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Before coming home I spend 24 hours in Florence for an Italian poet friend’s book launch. Too short a time for so bountiful a city. Long enough to climb the hill to Piazzale Michelangelo and see the Garden of the Roses and the Iris Garden, home of the Florentine ‘lily’ (giglio). From here, there is a sweeping view of the Arno, the same river that runs through Pisa, and the whole of the city, buildings packed so close together, not much changed since the time of the Medicis and the Renaissance.

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I sit with a lump in my throat beside the Duomo – Our Lady of the Flowers – a church built from so many different marbles, perfectly arranged, like some sublime garden, with such care and skill and devotion. Behind me a French tourist spills his ice-cream and his wife mops him up with a tissue from her bag soaked in perfume. ‘Now I smell like a woman!’ he says laughing. I get up to leave, taking the scent of jasmine and violets with me.

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Full Moon

photoToday gathering kindling in the woods behind my house it was lovely to see the drifts of wood sorrel bathed in sunlight.  Now the season’s a little more sure of itself, I’m starting to enjoy exploring the contrasts between Home and Away, North and South and City and Country – a strong impulse for my writing.

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Oxalis acetosella (wood sorrel or common wood sorrel) is also known as Alleluia, as it generally flowers between Easter and Pentecost.  Like everything else, it’s late this year but the coolness will also keep it in bloom for longer than usual.  The acetosella part of its name refers to the tart citrusy flavour of the leaves; heart-shaped and folded, they are a particularly vivid green.  The white flowers have fine mauve lines pencilled inside each petal.

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Tonight it’s Vesakha Puja – the full moon of May being the traditional time to celebrate the Buddha’s birthday.  Blessings on all beings this holiday weekend!

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Landing Place

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Of all the gardens I’ve visited Sydney definitely gets the gold for its setting.  A two-pronged patch of land, its boundary extends right into that part of the Harbour called Farm Cove to commemorate the first attempts at planting by the English invaders.

Captain Cook claimed ownership of the whole of the east coast of Australia on 22nd August 1770 by raising the British flag at Possession Island off the northern tip of Cape York.  Cook’s reports of only a few Aboriginal people, with nomadic habits, led to the fiction that possession was permitted since legally the land was ‘terra nullius’ – belonging to no one.

In fact for thousands of years the area around Farm and Sydney Coves had been inhabited by the Cadigal people, one of seven clans living in Coastal Sydney who spoke a common language, known as the ‘Eora’ people.  ‘Eora’ means ‘people’ or ‘of this place’ – their identity, community, means of survival and spirituality inseparable from their ancestral land.

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The eleven ships of the First Fleet arrived at Farm Cove, on the site of the Botanic Gardens, on 26th January 1788, under the command of Captain Philip.  700 convicts were transported across the globe to ease the pressure on Britain’s gaols.  All city criminals, with no agricultural or horticultural experience, they cleared the land in order to establish a three and a half hectare farm, ‘nine acres in corn’.  However their attempt at cultivation proved unsuccessful – the timing not taken into account, nor the high temperatures and low rainfall or the poor nutrients in the soil.  Nor the rats!  The plants the colonists brought with them as food crops, recommended by Cook’s botanist Joseph Banks, failed to thrive.

It is in this place that there is now a space within the Gardens called Cadi Jam Ora (‘I am in Cadi’), which grows all the native plants that the original indigenous people would have been familiar with and used for food and medicine and shelter.

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Meanwhile, back in the 18th century, the Aboriginal people, steering clear of the Cove, swarming with armed soldiers and chained prisoners, were close to starvation, deprived of their regular supplies of fish, kangaroo and plant foods.  In a matter of weeks the landscape had been completely transformed and it was becoming clear the intruders were there to stay.

In 1789 an outbreak of smallpox badly affected the local Aboriginal population and led to the beginnings of a sorry history of social collapse, grief and bewilderment.  By 1791 only three people descended from the Cadigal were left alive.

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By 1789, the farming venture had moved to Paramatta where it enjoyed greater success.  In 1810 the Governor Lachlan Macquarie established the ‘Demesne’ (now known as the Domain) as parkland for himself and his wife.  A new road system was built to navigate it.  One served as a boundary for his kitchen garden (on the site of the current Botanic Gardens); its completion on 13th June 1816, celebrated with five gallons of spirits divided between 11 men, is taken as the Gardens’ Foundation Day.  By 1820, Charles Fraser, Colonial Botanist and Superintendent, had created an independent Botanic Garden, with a catalogued collection of plants – one of the oldest in the Southern Hemisphere.  Here in Sydney they are looking forward to their bicentennial celebrations on 13th June 2016.  I’m sure it will also be quite a party.

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Taxonomy Is Not Just Stamp Collecting

When I was in Singapore at the end of January I had the pleasure of meeting Sue Hick, a fellow plant-lover and Northumbrian, for a walk round the Botanic Gardens and tea in the lovely Halia restaurant in the Ginger Garden.  She divides her time between Allendale and Singapore and works as a volunteer in the Singapore Herbarium.  As part of a series of guest posts, I asked Sue if she would write a piece about her work there.  I’m delighted to include it here, with some pictures from my own tour of it.

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Taxonomy is not just stamp collecting. Whether you’re talking about answering basic problems in evolution or practical questions on climate change, you can’t begin unless you know what’s there.

Lord May of Oxford, FLS (2003)

This quote sums up the work and importance of a herbarium. The Singapore Herbarium, where I work as a volunteer, is a reference library of all the plants in the region, covering the greater part of SE Asia.  There are specimens collected from all over the area and this is only a small fraction of the regions flora – some have yet to be discovered and some are already extinct.

I have worked there on and off for almost two years. My job is the lowest – I liken the work to a filing clerk in an old fashioned office – I check the dried plant specimens for damage, and then check the label for accuracy and finally re-file it. The herbarium is a quiet, peaceful place, air-conditioned and cool, a refuge from the busy city outside.

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New samples are constantly being collected from the field, pressed, fumigated and mounted on card before filing. Sometimes requests for samples come from researchers in other herbariums; some go to Kew Gardens for inclusion in their massive Herbarium.

Many of the older specimens are brittle and insect-eaten but every piece is kept – it has historical value if nothing else. Sometimes they can be repaired and remounted. The label is vital – a specimen is useless without knowing where it grew and in SE Asia countries change name and boundaries shift with time, e.g. many countries have new names since colonial times and it is even harder to pinpoint a plant collected on mountain ‘A ‘ if you have no knowledge of the country. I work with an atlas at my right hand – the last time I studied geography was in high school too many years ago!

Working there we see many researchers from all over the world who come to study the specimens. It is interesting talking to them as they discover new species or lament the absence of others. There is a sense of history as I find specimens collected by the old plant hunters from years ago – missionaries or colonial officers, or even ones collected by Ridley – Director of the Herbarium from 1888 to 1911 and who introduced the rubber tree to Malaya, which helped to make it a rich and prosperous colony of the British Empire.  I have worked at his desk and felt he would be proud of his followers who work there now.

Sue Hick                                                                                                                                  

February 2013

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Garden in the City of Cutlery

On a day when the world’s turned white and wintry, I’m sifting through my notes from the autumn trip south.  This is an abridged version of my notes on Sheffield Botanical Gardens.

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A Monday morning, the end of October.  Up to now it’s been ‘I’ – today it’s ‘we’.   Across the busy road, we walk through the open gate, under the arch of milky stone, neo-classical and confident.  Everything about this invitation to enter communicates certainty, stability and security, announcing itself as Victorian and Yorkshire, with a brusque, no-nonsense pride.  The northern flank of the gatehouse is a shop selling postcards, books, pocket money toys and botanical ‘souvenirs’, many of which seem to have very little to do with actual flowers.  The southern flank is an information office, closed for half-term.

Passing quickly through, we are welcomed on the left by a strawberry tree, fat scarlet berries next to waxy cream flowers amongst sturdy evergreen leaves.  Arbutus unedo – we eat just one, as the name suggests.  The taste is nothing like a strawberry – no juicy citrus edge – plain and business-like, better than nothing but best for jam, wine or hungry birds.  It is so pretty and surprising, a treat to see it there, the first thing in the garden.

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We decide to make a circle of the triangular-shaped gardens, restored to their original ‘Gardenesque’ style, and stroll anti-clockwise, beginning parallel to the road just on the other side of the railings, which used to be a high wall when the gardens were first built in 1836 and you had to pay a shilling to get in, beyond the pocket of most of the working people of Sheffield.  Along that top edge they’ve made a Four Seasons Garden, designed to provide plants of interest all the year round.  The most striking shrub has small pinky-red fruits, rather hard and patterned with dots like a cone.  It is unfamiliar, mysterious and has no helpful black label telling us its name, introducing itself and allowing us to feel as if we ‘know’ it. We’re drawn to investigate this alien plant but it resists interpretation, impossible even to know if it’s safe to eat the fruits.  We collect one that’s fallen on the ground and later when we come across one of the gardeners, all dressed in green, he tells us that it is Cornus kousa ‘Norman Haddon’.  He also says that you can eat the fruits but he’s heard they don’t taste very nice, although he’s never tried one himself.  We don’t either – not driven by hunger to risk it.

P1030176A landscaped mound planted with ornamental birches marks the far corner of the garden.  Below it there is a restored version of the original wrought iron turnstile gate, the word ‘IN’ set in the stretch of shiny black verticals.  At the end of each day a bell is still rung to let folk know the garden is closing.  Like a short, concentrated walk across the globe, we pass borders dedicated to plants from the Mediterranean, Asia and the Americas.  Most of the flowering plants are dying back now and it’s the trees that are getting all the attention.  The tame grey squirrels are busy being busy as if it were their best time of year too.  The ground is carpeted with swirls of yellow, brown and rust red – the strongest colour in the garden, despite the efforts of the gardeners with their leaf blowers and wheelbarrows.

P1030184Illuminating the layers of leaves, there are some patches of cyclamen and autumn crocus.  We are drawn to them – as if, like bees, we need to suck up their nectar to store against the winter dark.    At the southern corner, joining Thompson Road, we climb back up into the centre of the garden, past the sweet little South Lodge, set like a Wendy house by the side of the path.  All the buildings in the garden were designed to to be pleasing to the eye and add to the illusion of a ‘natural’ landscape, even though every square inch is clearly carefully managed by the curator and his crew of gardeners and the fleet of volunteers.

P1030190The heart of the garden is marked with a cast iron fountain, a heavy Victorian design, more interested in engineering than beauty.  But the energy of the cascading water is undeniable, refreshing and vigorous, and provides a focal point at the end of the Broadwalk.  Bordered by beds of herbaceous plants, this is a place to promenade, people-watch and take the air with family and friends.

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A rather offputtingly named AGM Garden showcases plants that have been awarded the RHS ‘accolade for excellence’.  Sheffield houses the National Collections of Weigela, Diervilla and Sarcococca – shrubs that wouldn’t look out of place in a suburban garden.  The Marnock Garden, named after the original designer, is an area intended to inspire visiting gardeners with ‘ideas to take home’, particularly involving tender climbers and scented plants.  There’s a wooden sitooterie in the shape of an apple and a silver insect nestling among the plants.  A circular raised bed shows fragments of terracotta leaves, imprinted with words no longer legible, part of a poetry trail.

The Evolution Garden reflects the impact of the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species in 1859.  A series of signs direct the visitor to pay attention to how and when plants and animals appeared on the planet and evolved into the arrangement we’re familiar with today.  There are several examples of fossilized trees, clearly reminding people of how much longer plants have been on the earth than man.

P1030226The statue of Pan next to the Rose Garden is intriguing. This version is slightly sanitized, with human legs rather than the hairy haunches of a faun.  More Peter Pan or St Francis than satyr, he is surrounded by his friends, the birds and the mice, bronze worn shiny from much stroking by passing children of all ages.  A god of nature, Pan was earthy and sensual, unrestrained in his appetites.  Sexually predatory, he even managed to seduce the Moon, Selene.  From his name we get the word ‘panic,’ originally expressing the terror experienced in wild and lonely places.

We leave the garden by the turnstile gate.  I want to find the sign that says ‘Botanical Road’.  It sounds strangely literal, like so much in this garden, straightforwardly informative, like ‘Station Road’ or ‘School Lane’.  But in my mind it summons up images of plants and flowers, burgeoning and irrepressible, cleaning our air, stabilizing our soil, providing food for our bodies and minds, lifting our spirits with their natural beauty.  I take a photo, aware I want it to be a talisman, a signpost directing me on the course of my botanical adventures.

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A Hinge for the New Year…

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Flower Renga

New year’s day
lilies flush
with unspent pollen

risking themselves, the first
snowdrops, a hellebore

how to describe
the scent of hyacinths
sweet, intense, alive

an infusion of rosebuds
in a glass pot

picking out the stars
by name like flowers
in a night garden

rhododendrons bud
like birthday candles

along Oystershell Lane
brown buddleia rise
above fences painted green

all buckle and tilt
the empty garden

each bud on my magnolia
wrapped
in a pair of miniature wings

iris reticulata
the familiar strange

blue sky and sunlight
birch tree glittering
a fog in my head

poems about my mother
the first flowers

as if I’ve swallowed the city
concrete and metal
cherry, forsythia

so many flowers
furred, miaowing

I sow self-heal
Prunella vulgaris
heart-weed

puffs of smoke
are cypress pollen

her clever way
with daisies
pressed in clay

the room’s a garden
my thousand-petalled heart

six hours of gardening
my winter-stiff body
learning to bend

amaranthus in the hothouse
its crimson dreadlocks

above the birches
a buzzard’s wings
filtered sunlight

planting out mimulus
‘fear of unknown things’

buds plumping
on leafless branches
the foxglove tree

five red freckles
inside the yellow cup (Cowslip)

the garden gathers us in
like children
wanting their mother

too many words
nothing to do with gardens

we walk across
to Dunstanburgh
sea pinks and kittiwakes

a garden transformed
with words and work and weather

‘Derrick Cook’
unpromising name
for such a delicate geranium

ash trees’ pinnate leaves
ripple in the sky

a bumblebee
rings the bells
of the foxglove

in the Tropical House
a lesson in adaptation

all evening
the smell of lilies
before I find them

collecting elderflowers
a gap in the rain

ivy-leaved toadflax
tangled on the wall
yellow lips, purple lips

as if I have no choice
dancing to the tree’s tune

amber? vanilla?
we press our noses
into its white petals (Encyclia abbreviata)

Hylde-moer, Hylde-moer
what is she calling for?

half-Rothko, half O’Keefe
I paint the light
of the flower in oil

Ward 9 – flowers forbidden
he takes his Nanna plastic

five hours
in the meditation garden
a cat’s cradle

gathering mullein flowers
remedy for earache

he splits a root
of meadowsweet
the smell of germolene

dong quai
Chinese angelica

orange and blue petals
in my tea cup
a pot pourri

a day of gifts
a calla lily, chocolate, Patti Smith

coming home
to a crescendo
of white gladioli

trimming the privet
housework outdoors

despite the rain
the fragrance
of sweet peas

in one envelope
a whole garden

harvest mites
berry bugs
chiggers

a sliver between clouds
to cut the grass

sixteen poets
sixteen renga lilies
in the sun

we cut a tray of violas in half
‘yellow duet’

our last day in the garden
is like a wedding –
photographs and cake

Anaphalis – ‘pearl everlasting’
its name a lie

the stink of rot
from the compost bin
clings to my hands

elderflower, lemon, sage
for an equinox cold

seeds of light
on chandeliers
of cow parsley, hogweed

the fern by her bed
an emerald flamenco

petals so gorgeous
you can’t get close enough
like silk, like skin

a glory of an afternoon
calligraphy of thorn and ash

time already up and away –
planting bulbs
I won’t be here to see

everywhere you choose to sit
there is a fountain to cool you

a grass labyrinth
loved and glittering
in russet light

one fallen frangipani
the smell of sex

counting the trunks
on Goethe’s palm
a poet’s blessing

I can’t help but love
her love of the garden

‘a beautiful tree
we sometimes forget
to admire’ (On Radio 4 – the ash)

you paint your toenails
the colour of parma violets

the haiku master
named after a banana
Musa basjoo

bravado of mistletoe
alien, unapologetic

safe in my pocket
the biggest conker
I’ve ever seen

persimmons – like people –
sweeten when they ripen

his reindeer ears
more like flowers
birds of paradise

he draws me
the circle of Ryoan-ji

flowers of glass
a bower
round their door

frost redefines
roadside ivy

a wasp’s nest
enough
for my winter garden

pine and bamboo
keepsake from the cloud gallery. (British Library)

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Flower verses extracted from the renga journal I kept throughout 2012 – slightly rearranged to fit the requisite patterning in a different context, but pretty much as they were written.  A way of stepping into the new year – reflecting on where I’ve been already and clearing a space for where I might find myself in the months ahead.

Warm wishes to you all for 2013 – a thousand flowers!

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Making Hay While the Snow Falls

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So – the structure I needed a sign to explain to me at Harcourt Arboretum was a hay rack from Slovenia.  The pictures in this post (apart from the information sign) are other examples.

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Hayracks are apparently found in about 80% of Slovenia.  As well as kozolec, Slovene names for the hayrack are kazucstog, and toplar. Other food stuffs, such as field maize, are dried on them as well.

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Although a practical structure, a hayrack is often artistically designed and handcrafted, a distinctive form of vernacular architecture.

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They are also used as places to sit, rest and shelter from the sun; the larger ones venues for summer parties.  Very lovely to think about while it’s so cold here and the days so short.

images-1You can see lots more interesting versions of the Slovenian hay rack here.

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you are here

P1030338I think signs are very important, particularly in gardens.  Top marks to the ones in Oxford Botanic Garden – nice to look at and interesting to read.

P1030343They’ve kept up the good work at Harcourt Arboretum, an outlying branch of the Botanic Garden a little way south of the city.  As the name suggests, it’s dedicated mostly to trees, with recently extended wildflower parkland.  They are doing everything they can to encourage biodiversity.

P1030498A further 50 acres, purchased in 2006, is called Palmer’s Leys.  It has been sown with seeds from the already existing meadow with some extra added – birdsfoot trefoil, common sorrel, cowslip, field scabious, lady’s bedstraw, lesser knapweed, oxeye daisy, ragged robin, ribwort plantain, selfheal, tufted vetch, yarrow and yellow rattle.

P1030509Even though I was there on a very cold day at the beginning of November, it seems as if it was almost balmy now that my field is all white and the roads hereabouts thick with ice.  That was autumn, this is winter.

P1030513The last picture is a quiz!  What is it?  I needed a sign to tell me – do you?  I’ll post the answer next time.

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