Pieris, and Muses; Songs, Sounds, Sanity, Sheep and Seasonal Markers.

We’re in the middle of the Pieris season. And since I was intrigued by the origin of the genus name, I thought I should explore a little.

Pieris, being evergreen shrubs, have year round value in the garden, but I increasingly appreciate them for their early season flowers, and the huge benefits that they provide as nectar sources for honeybees and early season bumblebee queens. I’m not sure about how much pollen they produce, but given an interlude from the prolonged colder weather, there’s an audible buzz near them, as the bees flock to the masses of flowers.SDIM1101 (2)

And under the midday sun, stand close to a bush in flower, and you can breathe in a really rich, honey like scent.

When the flowers are over, many of the cultivars then delight with the fantastic colours of the new season’s growth, which are picked up in some of their names, like P. ‘Forest Flame’ and, P. ‘Bonfire’. In most years here, they explode in late March with drooping pannicles of lily of the valley type flowers, which appeared in bud form, the previous autumn, to heighten expectations of when they’ll fill and open.SDIM1103 (2)

Quite why Pieris was chosen for the genus, I’m not sure, but it seems to be a link to Greek mythology and the 9 muses who were thought to be influential in most creative endeavours. I stupidly knew nothing about these goddesses of inspiration, obviously a failing for anyone attempting to write a regular blog, and sometimes struggling to gain motivation to sit and hit the keyboard, but they were purportedly the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne. Click here for more about their major significance in Greek and later artistic works, throughout the ages. In some records, the muses are represented as water nymphs associated with the springs of Helicon, and Pieris, or Pieria, which is a small region of North Eastern Greece.

But perhaps we have had a tenuous and previously unrecognised garden link to the muses for a few years, since we grow Narcissus ‘Thalia’, which is beginning to flower right now, and is named after one of these Grecian deities. Many thanks are due to a close friend Anne, for recommending this form to us. Multi-headed and a reliable flowering form, its lovely white flowers complement almost any other plant in the garden at this vibrant time of the year. Shown below with orange centred Narcissus ‘Actaea’.SDIM1350 (2)

Pieris are a small genus of shrubs within the Ericaceae, which includes all our heathers, which are equal bee flower favourites, with 7 species members native to Eastern Asia, and the USA.  A popular spring white flowering heather, below, shows the similarity in flower form, to the Pieris.SDIM1108 (2)

Most of the Pieris we grow are cultivars of P. japonica, and they seem to thrive in the semi-shaded slopes beneath our mature larch trees, where they’re slowly growing – some are more dwarfing forms, but others like P. ‘Forest Flame’ can eventually reach several metres in height, at which point, I’m guessing they’ll keep an army of bees happy for a week or two.

It’s given me a real buzz (sorry), to hear Andy (the chairman of the local bee keeping association) report on his latest visit to inspect his hive in the garden. To his great surprise, the bees had only consumed half of a block of pollen fondant that he’d left to sustain them earlier in the spring. He’d been expecting to have to supplement it, as he has with his other half a dozen hives. Not only that, but they’ve already been laying down honey (by early April). So, all our efforts in planting a garden filled with insect friendly flowers, from early January onwards, seems to be paying off. I’m trying to persuade him to add an extra hive, since the local honey is delicious, and the bees do sterling work in pollinating many of our flowers, and so help proliferate the beneficial ones.SDIM1220 (2)

Unfortunately daffodils, Welsh or otherwise, are pretty useless on this front, but they do cheer the spirits, particularly in the fabulous sunshine we’ve been enjoying of late. Along with other tasks, I’ve managed to photograph a few more of my ‘Welsh daffodil sunrises’, which I’m also loading onto a new separate Welsh daffodils page, with more details about each one. I shall use more of these pictures to leaven the rather ‘dry’ section below – if you’d like to find cultivar names, then check out the new page. SDIM1422 (2)

The radio natter drones on as I make the morning cuppa. Then from the dark, outside the back door, a clear song strikes up. Quickly I move and switch off ‘Today’. (I wrote this section in italics in mid-January, but have only belatedly included it below)

Tomorrow perhaps, or later, the radio might win, but for now the robin delights me, and sets the tone for the slow frosty grey dawn. We’re still in winter’s depths, but the birds sense spring. I stand still on the terrace in light barely adequate for filming. The lightest of cold zephyrs on my southerly cheek hints at some air movement and I manage a good three and a half minutes of recording before the first ‘rush’ hour car breaks the spell at 7.45 am. Across the valley, a cow lows deeply. (Mooing seems such a lightweight word, for such a deep resonant sound which enriches the mood, and hangs long in the air). Tits, wrens, robins, blackbirds are all on the move though. Are they trying to grab my attention and encourage me to count them for the annual RSPB garden bird watch, I wonder?S1020005 (2)

Much more recently, song thrush serenades, dawn overflying Canada geese which landed in our top hay meadow for the first time, and even a solitary curlew (birds which have declined in upland Wales by nearly 90% since 1989), have all caused us to stop and marvel. If you didn’t catch it, many of these sounds were brilliantly recorded and showcased in a beautiful 15 minute slot by sound recordist Chris Watson, who in spite of decades of globe trotting through his professional work, still reckons you can’t beat a British dawn chorus. Click here to listen, including some amazing nightingales at 2.30 am. BBC Radio 4 at its best.

In another unlikely word association, how do I manage to link sound, sheep and sanity? In reverse order, one of the frustrations of our big internal insulation project was having to cover up the piano under a tarpaulin for well nigh 2 months. There was literally no scope for me to play at all in such a dusty and moist environment.

Sanity was suffering.

There was also considerable trepidation about the state it would be in when the tarp was rolled back, but I needn’t have worried since the dehumidifier had kept it in really good condition – old style pianos are very sensitive to wood swelling with humidity changes, which can not only alter pitch and sound quality, but also the ‘action’ – how sticky, or light the keys are, when played. The piano, which was apparently built in the 1940’s, now plays better than at any time in our 20 years of ownership in 2 different older houses. Once uncovered, and playing first thing in the morning as the sun filters through the tiny window, kept me sane as we moved into the next part of the house. But I had an inkling that the acoustics in the room were also different.SDIM1345 (2)

Just how much so, was only evident when the hi fi was eventually restored and switched on. Every single CD has revealed sounds and nuances never before heard. A remarkable achievement given the inevitable decline in our hearing acuity with passing years, and replacing our failed amp with an older, second hand model. And there is the added bonus of a reduction in external noise inside, which may prove to be an additional benefit, should Carmarthenshire planners continue to approve wind turbines locally. Click here and here for some fascinating recent research by Steven Cooper in Australia, assessing low frequency sounds from wind turbines, and health issues suffered by local residents, inside their homes.SDIM1402 (2)

But I began to think more about the remarkable internal sound benefits we’ve experienced. We’ve obviously now lost a lot of ‘hard’ internal surfaces, and replaced them with softer old-fashioned lime based, or lime hemp based, plaster onto cork (‘EcoCork’) or wood fibre (‘Homotherm’) boards, rather than gypsum plasters on plasterboard. (Click here for details on these boards, together with their vital relative water permeability, and U value insulating properties).

I remembered a visit last October to a fantastic restaurant (Clavelshay Barnclick here) on a farm in deepest rural Somerset, where the owner has solved audibility issues in the converted barn restaurant, by placing felted sheep’s wool clouds suspended beneath the roof’s timber A frames, to absorb reflected sounds, and so improve sound clarity. Click here for more on the uses of such “Woolly Shepherd” felted wool boards and acoustic engineering, which are an option of a less radical way of transforming any room’s sound quality – than our more all over treatment.

By moving furniture and de-cluttering, although the rooms have shrunk internally, they actually appear larger. But what has amounted to moving house twice, combined with complete internal redecoration after the insulation has been completed, has nearly completely exhausted us, over this winter. However, for the first time ever in our married life we now live in a cosy, comfortable, dry(ish) home.SDIM1265 (2)

And by choosing the excellent range of ecological insulating materials provided by Ty Mawr Lime in Brecon, we’ve an extra glow from knowing that we’re helping to support the Portugese cork oak forests, as well as having finishes which are air and water breathable – vital for older buildings built without damp proof courses in walls, or damp proof membranes in floors. Although the latter were incorporated here, in our initial restoration works.SDIM1254 (2)

But it’s taken me quite a lot of thinking to work out just why the ‘feel’ of the property is so much more pleasant. And I’ve come to the conclusion that by using the cork internally, the inevitable rising damp which afflicts buildings without DPC’s is no longer being evaporated internally. As a consequence, at last we can attain humidity levels internally which are below the accepted maximum healthy level of 70%, which was never possible before – even with multiple dehumidifiers in operation  – I guess these were just constantly sucking more water from the walls, which was then constantly being replaced by the rising damp.SDIM1262 (2) As a consequence any water will now evaporate mainly through the wall’s external breathable lime wash coating, even if the damp rises now to a slightly higher level in the core of the wall. Many different factors will determine how high damp will rise – such as mortar used, brick or stone, thickness of walls, etc.SDIM1390 (2)

But what if insulation, particularly non breathable materials like polystyrene boards are placed externally? The rising damp will still then reach higher levels in the walls, but will only be able to evaporate internally. So humidity levels internally will tend to rise – unless impermeable internal finishes are used, in which case there is no route out for the water and long term issues with moisture created wall degradation, are likely to occur.SDIM1400 (2) Also consider the energy required to evaporate any moisture internally, (the huge latent heat of vaporisation at roughly 2,600 KJoules per litre), and the consequent energy loss from the internal living space. This process has been massively reduced by placing the cork internally, as opposed to any form of external insulation. Now we benefit from the extra heat generated by running dehumidifiers, without constant wall evaporation. This is because when the water vapour condenses in the machine to liquid water, an equally impressive amount of latent heat is given off into the room. SDIM1429 (2)Apologies for this slightly nerdy piece, but I wanted to record thoughts on what has been a remarkable transformation of an older building into a much healthier living space, by using older, and more traditional materials. Indeed, my personal respiratory issues have been alleviated considerably, in spite of the all pervading dust during the process.

Finally, apart from the late arrival of the Canada geese, and the turkeys beginning to lay 3 weeks later than usual, perhaps the weather will return to more normal patterns soon, since our first swallows arrived on April 8th.S1020025 (2)S1020014 (2)SDIM1088 (2)

6 thoughts on “Pieris, and Muses; Songs, Sounds, Sanity, Sheep and Seasonal Markers.

  1. Another interesting and remarkable blog- I learn something new every time ! Must watch out for the swallows now…thanks for the heads up!

  2. Lovely to see your garden and all the varieties of your daffodils. I was very interested in the Pieris as I have only seen small specimens with cream flowers and I have felt they looked out of proportion for the plant and I don’t have any. Now you have got my attention and I can see they must be lovely when bigger. Amelia

  3. Hello Amelia,
    Thanks for the comment. Our original Pieris ‘Forest Flame’ must be nearly 8 feet tall now, but its taken about 16 years to get that big. But when we’ve visited Parc Florale in Paris, some of their specimen’s tower over you, and must look spectacular in flower. I forgot to say, that they tend to like more acid, woodland type soils, which is probably why most tend to like it with us,
    Best wishes

  4. When we first came back from South Africa I tried recording the dawn chorus – playing it back was a revelation as I could hear so many more birds! My travelling is relatively limited but my instinct tells me that an English (UK?!) dawn chorus certainly takes some beating – a real joy every morning.

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