Tag Archives: strawberry tree

Dark Days

IMG_6399Last night I gave a reading of some of my new poems at the Lindisfarne Centre, St Aidan’s, Durham University, where I am currently Fellow at the IAS.  This year’s theme is ‘Light’ and it felt ironic to be revisiting Moorbank which has been so illuminating for me while the gardeners are preparing to clear out the glasshouses in readiness for the Freemen taking back ownership at the end of the month.

The deadlock continues in terms of any possibility of creative dialogue between the Friends and the Freemen so it remains to be seen what will transpire.  Meanwhile here are some updates from Moorbank’s Facebook posts.  Yet more irony – all this happening when it’s just won a much deserved Award…

October 23rd

We are thrilled to announce that Moorbank Botanic Garden has been awarded an Outstanding rating in the RHS – Royal Horticultural Society ‘It’s Your Neighbourhood’ Awards. We were presented this award last night at the ceremony and we’d like to thank the BBC’s Marian Foster for nominating us for this award. You can read all the information about how we were marked in the photos, but we’re thrilled with this news!!

IMG_6393November 5th

This week marks the date when Newcastle University are starting to rehome plants from Moorbank Botanic Gardens. They are being forced to do this as the Freemen have not revealed their plans for what will happen to Moorbank once the University depart. The University offered to leave the entire collection, minus the research plants, but the Freemen have not suggested how they will care for Moorbank once the University leave, so the concerns were with the tropical and desert plants. There were no suggestions that the heating and watering systems would continue, which would mean that there would be total loss of plants in these glasshouses. Homes have been found for the most important plants in our glasshouses with other botanic gardens across the UK, including Sunderland Winter Gardens, Ventnor Botanic Garden, Glasgow Botanic Garden and Cambridge University Botanic Garden. However, many mature plants cannot be moved due to their size or intermingled roots. Cuttings are being taken from these plants, but there will still be significant numbers of plants left in the glasshouses after the University departs. We still haven’t been given any information about whether the Freemen will care for these appropriately, or whether they will switch off the heating and water.


Check Moorbank out on Look North from last night. You can scroll to about 11 1/2 minutes in to see the article about Moorbank and hear what the Freemen have to say. Not that we’re biased, but our independent survey of the site told us we needed to find £120k over 5 years to restore Moorbank. The Freemen haven’t yet mentioned to us what they think will cost “several hundred thousand pounds” to fix let alone the “million” that they are now claiming.

There was also a good summary of the situation in The Journal – you can read it here.

IMG_6577On my last visit to Moorbank a few weeks ago I was delighted to see the Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unedo), that had suffered so badly in the heavy snowfall of 2010, springing back into life.  Surviving against the odds, reflecting the cyclical nature of things, it’s always been a strong symbol of the spirit of Moorbank for me.  Let’s hope its strong new shoot is a good sign for what the future may yet bring.

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No Smoke Without Fire

When my camera broke recently, I dug out my old one to take some photos.  I discovered some images on it from when I last used it a couple of years ago.  These were of a bonfire at Moorbank in January 2011, built to burn the various branches that had to be felled because of snow damage during the particularly intense winter that year.  One of the biggest casualties in the garden was the old Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unedo) that had stood guard over the entrance for many years.

I’d never seen one of these trees before and used to taste one of the fruits whenever I walked in –not the loveliest of flavours, but somehow cheering.  I was entranced by the way the fruits and the flowers were always on the tree at the same time – scarlet berries alongside creamy-white, waxy bells.  A native of Ireland, as signalled by one of its names – the Killarney Strawberry Tree – this unusual plant also appears in the Mediterranean and is the symbol of Madrid, reflected in the liqueur made from its fruits – madrone.  Hieronymus Bosch painted one in his Garden of Earthy Delights triptych (c.1490/1510), which currently hangs in the city’s Prado Gallery.  I have since seen specimens in all three of the Botanic Gardens I have visited recently – Padua, Sheffield and Oxford (the source of the first two photographs here).

If all those various associations weren’t enough, it became a powerful symbol of the garden at Moorbank for me during my residency for the way its collapse under the weight of the snow showed what the gardeners there, all volunteers, were made of.  While I was still mourning its loss, they were cutting it back, gathering up the branches to be burnt and planning what might be planted to replace it.  Literally looking on the bright side, they were pleased at the possibility of more light finding its way into that end of the glasshouse.  I was deeply impressed by their groundedness and pragmatism – the way all good gardeners must look to the future.

Some of that same spirit was in evidence today at the Open Meeting to explore possible ways forward with the future of Moorbank, since the University has made the decision not to renew the lease with the Freemen of Newcastle.  The valiant volunteers – the Friends of Moorbank – led forums on the different areas this green space in the heart of the city now needs support with – gardening, business planning, finance and marketing/events.  Around 150 people attended, bringing some wonderful ideas and energy to the discussion.  Everyone’s input will be pooled to take the garden onto the next stage of its transition.  Knowing what determination and commitment the Friends of Moorbank are capable of, I look forward to seeing where this might lead.  It was good to come home with the sense that Moorbank has clearly made lots more Friends at a time when it needs as many as it can get.


Arbutus unedo

Bosch’s paradise tree waved them past
the gate, scarlet berries winking on dark stems
beside waxy bells, a tumble of cream and pink.
Some said the fruit tasted of nothing – one
was enough; food for the birds. Others let
the flesh ferment into Spanish liqueur.

At the end of November the snow fell,
snow like no one had seen before;
their Eden lost in the sky’s dreaming.

The old tree couldn’t bear the weight
of its white coverlet, creaking till its trunk
and branches split, exposed the chilled bones
of a dying year.
Earth like stone
under their boots, the gardeners went back
to work, tramping through snow with sawn
and fallen boughs to coax into smoke.

Flames shone on their faces as the fire took hold;
flakes of ash fingered their shoulders like frost.
The incense of burnt heartwood rose.
As if such wild heat could melt a hole
in the heavens, that afternoon saw more snow;
zodiac of a virgin year turning.

They tilled the calendar with spades and hoes,
telling the legend of that winter, what had passed,
the snow, the fire, the strawberry tree.

Yesterday the Financial Times published an article on Moorbank you can read here  – and you can also become a Friend yourself on Facebook here.

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