Just in time to save our sanity the sun returned to this small part of Wales and reminded us of the delights of winter. It really turns our days’ activities upside down after all the greyness.
Frosts, mists return and the desire to leap out of bed in the morning and breathe it all in is immediate. Usually the camera accompanies me for these early morning forays, but later in the day as work begins, I just can’t discipline myself to keep it by me at all times.
As a result I shall have to rely on mere verbal description of how the whole countryside seemed to explode into action the first day that the sun’s very existence was beyond doubt again, after weeks of faith that behind the clouds it was indeed following its normal trajectory.
First off on Friday, and giving a brief advance warning thanks to the thunderous roar, was a low-level jet screaming towards me from the mist filled valley. It would have made a fabulous though threatening image as it banked over the copse and flew off to the West. Although regular occasional visitors with Hercules, Chinooks and Tornados/Phantoms, the RAF had been in a surprisingly quiescent mode of late. The pilot’s morning vistas must have been spectacular with the Welsh countryside bathed in an orange glow, and mist struggling to rise from the valley bases.
A little later, and a touch of hand pollination of some of the early snowdrop varieties had me moving through the top section of myre-tyred matrix garden. I surprised a small vole which took off into a space between adjacent tyres. Realising that it was in a dead-end it leaped out and into the next between-tyre space. By now I’d walked on a couple of paces, so it jumped back up the way it had come, and repeated this attempt at escape 3 times, before I moved on. Since this was now mid day, I figured that perhaps like us the small rodent was so relieved to see a change in the weather, it just had to get out into the fresh air, even if it was the middle of the day, and therefore quite a risky strategy.
My main job for the day was starting to fashion some of the latest tree stumps into organic forms. We’d toyed with the idea of an alternative use for the considerable bulk of the Norwegian Spruce butts, but in the end felt that sculpting them into mushroom forms would be more appropriate. Firstly, because they can then decay gradually as fungal mycelium start to attack them and maybe mirror the degeneration phase of the garden and indeed gardeners, as we age, and secondly because last year for the first time, an orange coloured waxcap mushroom popped up in the middle of this part of the terrace garden. I’d tentatively identified it as a conical waxcap (Hygrocybe conica) or blackening waxcap (Hygrocybe nigrescens) from Roger Phillips’ great book on Mushrooms and other fungi.
I discovered that Carmarthenshire is one of the favoured parts of the UK for waxcap (waxy cap) mushrooms, of which there are apparently 63 UK species, and there is an excellent review and guide to them from Aberystwyth University, click here.
Like mosses they prefer moist environments with no artificial fertilizers, and so the environment at Gelli is ideal for them. Across Europe many species are in serious decline because the unimproved old-established grass meadows with shortish grass which they inhabit are rapidly being lost to modern agricultural practices. There is still uncertainty over whether the underground mycelium which throws up the fruiting body shown above simply grows alongside moss, since both favour the same conditions, or whether there is a real symbiotic relationship between the two. Certainly it is not a saprophyte, breaking down plant material like many mushroom groups.
There is clearly a lot still to be learned about their ecology, and still elements of mystery about them. Yesterday I searched to see if any had ‘magic mushroom’ hallucinogenic properties, and it seems unlikely, although I did discover that in other parts of the world the conical waxcap has the “Witch’s Hat” common name (This was good enough for me to think that I’d made a good choice of species to try to shape the Norwegian Spruce stumps into!).
Dusk was about to curb my efforts with the chainsaw for the day last Friday and so I stepped back along the slate path to review progress.
Often it’s only at a distance that you can start to get an idea of how to refine a shape. A bit off here, a bit there. And all the time interpreting what you want to achieve – a semblance of mimicry of a specific natural form, at various stages of emergence, with the practical considerations of what can be worked with a chainsaw, safely in incompetent hands, AND survive for a few years without falling over. As I stood, still covered in the very fine sawdust that comes from much cutting of the wood down the grain, longitudinally, I thought again about the appropriateness of including mushrooms of the Hygrocybe family in our garden in a sculptural way. Real magic mushrooms, for a garden which on occasion has magical happenings within it, and even exudes an aura of magic which some visitors have commented upon.
Literally just as this thought had left me, I was alerted by movement close to the furthest stump. A grey squirrel was moving into the garden along the slate path. About 5 yards at a time it ran, paused, and then stood upright on its hindlegs as it held its paws in front of its chest, whilst surveying the scene. On it came, following the curve of the path. Surely it must see me soon, and turn tail and run. Closer and closer, until no more than 18 inches from my sawdust covered boot it paused and looked right up at me. For a split second I was worried. Might it mistake this sawdust covered, still green upright object for a new sapling, and worth an exploratory climb? Aren’t squirrels aggressive little blighters when disturbed? Capable of inflicting nasty bites?
For a couple of seconds we faced each other with actual eye contact, then it turned and slowly moved off to my right. Another thought then returned me to the “Heat” scene with Al Pacino and Robert de Niro drinking a coffee with each other in the cafe. Pursuer and Prey (which squeezed into my last blog). Will I now find it easy to aim an air rifle if I see a squirrel in the trees or on the ground near crocus corms, having had this very close encounter? I suspect not. This contact was just too personal and symbolic.
Perhaps as with the earlier vole, the squirrel had been overcome by the novelty of a dry and sunny day, and thrown caution to the winds?
Bit like me with the chainsaw.
Anyway a couple of days later and the mushroom to the extreme left was taking shape:
A clear night and a further clear sunny morning and a phone call from a friend suggesting a walk to the Brechfa Forest Garden came before I’d had a chance to continue. A brilliant excuse for a day without chainsaw work so we headed off mid morning. In any event I’d wanted to go up there sometime to see if I could find any interesting leaf skeletons amongst the leaf litter, but feared that this year’s very mild winter might have impacted on how rapidly leaves had decomposed. The cloud had gathered by the time we started the walk but there were fleeting breaks in it which allowed a few shafts of low sunlight to illuminate the many lichen festooned branches. Although there had been a fairly hard frost, it had all dissipated from the trees and ground as we started the walk.
As we reached the Forest Garden proper after about an hour’s walking, we spotted on the steep and still shaded Western face of the hillside a few branches on the ground, as well as some in the trees, which were covered in white candy floss like structures. Close examination showed that these were actually filaments of ice like material. Neither Fiona nor I had ever seen anything like this before, although Anne recalled seeing something similar about a year before near Pumpsaint. Fortunately for once I did have my camera with me to record them.
Subsequent research established that these ice filaments of frost flowers or frost beards are really quite rare natural phenomenon forming when sodden wood is exposed to a sudden drop in temperature below freezing before the wood has had a chance to dry out. The water is then forced from pores in wood, and freezes as it is extruded creating the long delicate filamentous structures. We felt very fortunate to have glimpsed this fleeting natural phenomenon. Indeed it took me a while to track down the frost flowers, or beards terminology. Before that the top search using “ice crystals on branches” or “ice filaments” brought up top google listings of communications in ‘Nature’ from the 1880’s !! They can’t be that rare can they!! A more contemporary link is given here.
Later we did indeed find a few skeleton leaves amongst the mainly sodden and intact leaf litter, and as I’d remembered from a previous year, the leaves of the tulip tree provided some of the best specimens.
Back in the garden, more snowdrops have opened, and the Cylamen coum are stunning. I read with interest Sarah Raven’s piece focusing on them in last Saturday’s paper. The one point which I don’t think she mentioned, is that they’re quite easy to hand pollinate, even if it’s tough on the back, using a fine artist’s paintbrush. Since there are very few natural pollinating insects around in early January in upland Wales, this approach is invaluable if you want to bulk up numbers, since individual tubers (I’m sure that they used to be called corms a few years ago?) won’t produce offsets in the way that Crocus corms do.
Interestingly, standard texts also rarely mention the vital process of pollination in their advice for propagating species like these. The starting point is always: ” Sow the seed…” without suggesting that you might be unlikely to get any seed in the first place! Unsurprising, since these plants are native to the Caucuses and the near Middle East, not Northern Europe. Most of our Cyclamen coum have developed from just such an approach to artificial pollination. The first tubers were bought about 3 years ago in February and on planting them out I was a bit disappointed by how little impact the 40 or so that we shelled out for had created, on the southerly slope where they were positioned.
However this is where the joy of compound interest comes to the aid of the patient gardener. And isn’t this one of the great virtues of developing a love of gardening? That you have to take the patient long term view. So 3 years on, and the individual tubers have increased in size and therefore produced many more flowers (this is a great trait of many Cyclamen, with tubers eventually becoming as large as small plates).
The first tiny tubers, which arrived in the small pots with their small parents are now also producing flowers themselves, and as you can see from the pictures below, hand pollinating last year’s flowers is now producing a huge crop of seedlings which can be planted up elsewhere a little later in the year.
The success with these Cyclamens has, as I mentioned above, also encouraged me to hand pollinate snowdrops since again, particularly with the early varieties, there are few insects around to do the job naturally. Wouldn’t it be great if in these economically challenging times, investment decisions were as rewarding, or consistently reliable in predictable compound growth as that provided by some of these early spring beauties? Perhaps it should be a requirement that all FTSE 100 companies, or certainly those that are banks, should employ a non-executive director who has a background in horticulture to inject a bit more long termism into company policy decision-making.