The Sun and Life Returns; Witch’s Hats; Frost Beards and Compound Interest from a Paint Brush

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.

Not an image for a new light fitting, but an untweaked, though upside down, image of the first sunrise in weeks.14/01/12

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.

A more conventional view. Options of weathervane and sunrise now fall off the agenda until December as the sun sweeps round to the East.14/01/12

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.

Some of the best early snowdrops, Galanthus “Atkinsii”. Much larger and earlier than the common ‘native’ G. nivalis. Some G. nivalis are shown below for comparison. Well worth hand pollinating, since there are few insects around now to naturally pollinate these flowers. Being the first ‘exotic’ snowdrop that I acquired, it has now, with a little help from me, bulked up to produce several hundred flowers each year (Mind you, that’s taken several years of patient waiting) 14/01/12

The Common Snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis…..way behind G. Atkinsii 20/01/12

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.

The terrace garden waxcap which appeared in 2010 for the first time. I originally thought it was Hygrocybe nigrescens (Blackening waxcap) but it may well be Hygrocybe conica (Conical waxcap), since it first appeared on 7/08/10 – perhaps a little early for the former. Both blacken with age or trauma, and both can have orangey /yellow hues. Interestingly its location in our terrace garden is in an area with almost no soil, and underlaid with smashed up concrete and shale. But it is still soaked with our lovely Welsh rain, and mosses have certainly colonised this part of the garden as well.

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.

Time to pause and reflect on progress as the light started to go. Musing on the appropriateness, or otherwise, of magic mushrooms in the garden at Gelli, the squirrel entered stage left and came right up to my feet along the slate path. 14/01/12

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 rather fuzzy photo of your rather fuzzy and dusty blogger, with mushroom no.5. How to finish and colour up the latest mushrooms is the subject of some lively debate within the house at present… 17/01/12

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.

The walk up to the Brechfa Forest Garden 15/01/12

All that rain certainly helps the moss and lichens to thrive. Larch festooned with shades of green, Brechfa Forest Garden 15/01/12

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.

The first Frost ‘Beard’ or ‘Flower’ 15/01/12

This frost beard looked for all the world like a manicured, white, central parting hair do. Unbelievably fragile multiple single ice filaments formed as water was extruded from sodden wood under particularly rare temperature and humidity conditions. I’m not sure if anyone has been able to replicate this in a laboratory 15/01/12

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.

A particularly lovely backlit Oak silhouette on the walk back from the Forest Garden 15/01/12

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).

Cyclamen coum will thrive even when grown really close to the base of mature trees – here a moss encrusted Oak, if they have free drainage and sufficient summer moisture – no problems on that front here. 14/01/12

Cyclamen coum thriving beneath our big oak treee. 3 years from planting the small tuber, there are all these flowers, and at this time of year, in the depths of winter. How fantastic, and possibly just from one tuber judging by the identical flower colour and leaf patterns, which tend to be all subtly different from one tuber to the next 14/01/12

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.

Last year’s efforts with the paint brush can be seen just beyond the ring of cyclamen flowers from the plant above. Tens of first leaf baby Cyclamen tubers – the joys of compound interest rewarding the patient gardener 14/01/12

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.

Another day, another sunrise…..15/01/12

And another one that’s a bit more special…..16/01/12…..and then the clouds returned…

Hamamelis ‘Vesna’ is now fully out, with slightly more golden flowers this year, I think.  16/01/12

Having momentarily tired of ripping up our moss garden paths, one of our friendly blackbirds turned with gusto to the moss-covered wall outside the kitchen. By now astute readers may realise that up here moss may not grow fat on rolling stones, but it does seem to grow fat on pretty much anything else which stays still for long enough! 20/01/12

It looks to me like the reward on this occasion was a small worm …. bit fuzzy since pictured through glass. 20/01/12


2 thoughts on “The Sun and Life Returns; Witch’s Hats; Frost Beards and Compound Interest from a Paint Brush

  1. Julian,
    Fascinating as always, especially the frost beards – so logical when you think about it. Not much chance of them here in the Cape. Temperature a couple of days ago 37deg C!! I climbed Table Mountain that day; the heat nearly killed me! I had to lie in the shade from time to time to recover, but I made it to Maclear’s Beacon (1073m).

    On your point about compound interest and the relation to the FTSE, it is a fascinating insight. Taking the analogy a bit further, both in horticulture and business, you have to factor in competition. Unbridled compound interest eventually becomes unstable. In nature, resources required for further expansion become scarce, parasites multiply, and mutations make the organism fat and lazy, and lean and hungry competitors take their chance. So too in business. That the FTSE can’t take your advice is absolutely because almost all those companies have grown at compound interest rates to a point of stasis, where the only way is sidewards or down, attacked on all sides by essentially the same thing!

    It’s a pity our pensions are all invested in the next set of losers!
    Regards and love to HN, KTBear

    • KTB,
      Thanks for the comment. Glad to hear that you escaped Blighty even as Heathrow was planning to go into shutdown mode with the snow, and you’re now safely boiling in the Cape, eh? Well no sympathy from the still shivering hobbits.
      Re your compund interest comments, I reckon that a lot of the time, not always accepted, nature shows more restraint and is less demanding of scarce resources than you suggest precisely because it has an innate realisation of what will follow overindulgence.
      But 3 comments on pensions and compound interest. I noticed this week that the average age of the 30 or so companies that the ubiquitous Terry Smith now invests his low cost Fundsmith Fund in, is over 100 years. And he’s managed over 12% growth from these laggards last year.Also the week after this post, MoneyWeek’s editorial introduced me to the philanthropic Francesco Vivaldi who in the 1300’s offered to set up a fund which bought up overindebted Genoa’s debts, and rolled over the compound interest, using it to buy up more toxic debt until several decades later the debt had all but vanished. The fund was then wound up, and the grateful Genoans erected a statue in his memory. Apparently the UK’s annual debt repayments are £42bn, but the monthly additional interest on the £1trn outstanding is an additional £10bn. When is today’s Vivaldi going to enter the scene??? Finally yesterday Mervyn King splashed out/magiced out of thin air another £50bn for QE, apparently concerned that inflation looked like it was going to become too low…… I’m sure that this decision has absolutely nothing to do with the move a couple of years ago to shift most of the B of E’s pension funds out of equities and into index linked gilts…… Enjoy the sun and heat, BW VGH

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