As February lurches violently beyond dangerous Doris – storm number four of this year’s named sequence – and onwards towards St. David’s Day, there have been two recent fleeting occasions when the sun has shone and the temperatures risen.
So one has to experience it all.
Cometh the camera.
This is one of those scenarios where, never mind one’s skill or lack of it, with either words or digital imagery, nothing captures the exuberant thrill, and joy, of being. Down amongst these vibrant fragile winter tapestries, when, to rights, the world should be the still dull olive green and taupe, of chomped short pasture that clothes the hills around, slow to stir in distant May’s wild blooming.
And then it dawned on me.
I’d seen the first bumblebee queen of the year on February 18th, homing in on the wide open Crocus flowers on the southerly slope – always the warmest bit of the garden in these early months, before the oak leaves emerge.
And temperatures rose into double figures. You could even smell the snowdrop nectar in areas of the garden, but not a honeybee in sight.
Just the odd few early, colour-banded hover flies, lapping pollen.So, the second thing to be done, after the realisation that there probably weren’t going to be any honeybees this year, was some anthropogenic pollination – our closest neighbour apiarist, who is planning to move in the near future has, we suspect, passed on his hives to someone living some distance away.
Bizarre though it might sound, I spent a great couple of hours bent over during these brief sunny interludes, hand pollinating Crocus, and some of our special snowdrop flowers, with background serenading from thrush, blackbird and robin, which all seemed to sense the uniqueness of this moment.
With the forecast for a further 10 days of unsettled windy, wet weather, to come, this could well be the only chance to initiate Crocus seed formation for 2017. And as I’ve written before, it’s not easy to buy any Crocus, especially our favourite C. tommasinianus, seed in quantity in the UK.
And without scattering thousands of seed over the years, we wouldn’t have the subtle colour variant Crocus drifts which we now do. Only the cream Crocus in the area below were planted, the rest have grown from hand pollinated, collected, saved, and scattered seeds.
Everything isn’t entirely joyful, however, and the annual battle with chomping voles and rabbits surfaced again, just as the Crocus were at their peak, and nectar production is at a maximum. This year some neat piles of petals were obvious in a few parts of the garden. Distraction feeding, with apple, or even using organic slug pellets, does seem to mitigate the damage, but also, I think that the more I can co-mingle Crocus with snowdrops, the less likelihood that rodents or rabbits will be able to easily decimate the Crocus display.
However, some very special visitors did make it over to Gelli Uchaf, on a brief flying visit. Carolyn Walker and her husband Michael had flown over from Pennsylvania on a trip to the UK specifically to look at snowdrops and to visit some of the great snowdrop gardens, meet some of the country’s significant galanthophiles, and look at lots of snowdrops. Carolyn is one of the main snowdrop importers and sellers in the US and has a thriving garden and nursery specialising in shade loving plants. Galanthus ‘Imbolc’, below.
So why did she visit us?
Years ago, when I googled “thermogenesis in snowdrop flowers”, as you do, it was Carolyn’s blog that came top of the searches. Click here. I read her piece with interest, and then thought that this was such an interesting source of information, with appealing photographs, that maybe I could have a go at writing a blog as well.
So, Carolyn and I are longstanding gardening blogger friends, and when I heard she was coming to the UK, I twisted her arm to travel a bit further into West Wales to meet up.
Having just heard that nearby Aberglasney Gardens had scooped the top prize in this year’s IGPOTY garden photo competition for all beautiful gardens from around the world, we whizzed Carolyn and Michael down to pose on the same bridge, designed by Aberglasney’s head gardener Joseph Atkin, that featured in the winning image. Click here to see the winning photo, taken by local photographer Nigel McCall. Amazingly another 2 of Nigel’s photos of Aberglasney were also in the top 10 images for this competition which receives 18,000 entries from all around the globe! An extraordinary accolade.
And Aberglasney is our nearest local garden, now with lots to see whatever the season. How fortunate are we to live here!
Unfortunately I completely forgot that Aberglasney closed early at this time of the year, but very graciously, the indefatigable Joseph, allowed us to stay in the gardens, after closing time, until dusk, and even gave us a personal tour of the new propagation facilities in the recently converted old piggeries. 10 days later and Joseph visited our gardening club, Cothigardeners, (click here for more), to give a brilliant talk on “Plants for West Wales”, which was really well attended and marked the beginning of my tenure as the club’s chairman.
Carolyn and Michael wanted to look round our garden as well, and whilst inspecting our snowdrops she was struck by a vigorous clump of smaller snowdrops with a really attractive, flattish, glaucous leaf, above. Asking which cultivar, it was, I explained that it was one of about 10% which I hadn’t been able to identify. She was sufficiently impressed by its merits to suggest that I dug up a couple of bulbs for her to take to show her hosts at Colesbourne Park, with whom she was spending a couple of nights, and also the snowdrop expert at Avon bulbs – Alan Street.
In due course we heard back from Carolyn that Alan reckoned it was a hybrid between Galanthus nivalis and G. plicatus, and thus could be known as a G.x valentinei. This was appropriate since the flowers were at their peak around February 14th. More surprising was a very kind invitation from Sir Henry and Lady Carolyn Elwes, who own Colesbourne Park, to tag onto a pre-booked party of snowdrop visitors to Colesboure the following week. So Wednesday saw us driving up to Gloucestershire, and the most celebrated snowdrop gardens in Britain, and spiritual home of Galanthus elwesii, named after Sir Henry’s grandfather, Henry John Elwes, who was the first to find and describe this giant snowdrop in the Turkish hills in 1874.
Sir Henry and Lady Carolyn have been fully involved in maintaining and planting up the garden, for at least the last 25 years, now with their fairly recently appointed, and very enthusiastic head gardener, Arthur Cole. They also provide guided tours and teas for the thousands of visitors they receive every season. A remarkable achievement in view of their advancing years. Never mind the benefits of galantamine (an extract from snowdrops, click here), in ageing bodies, it seems to me that simply tending snowdrops is in itself an elixir of longevity, if Henry and Carolyn are anything to go by. They seemed indefatigable. The gardens are indeed stunning with formal display areas, and more relaxed, natural, under tree plantings, where snowdrops carpet the ground in their millions.
There are plenty of Crocus and Cyclamen coum to delight as well, though Sir Henry explained that shrubs are a bit trickier, since parts of the garden at Colesbourne are frost pockets, and frost has been recorded there in every month of the year! I would urge anyone who likes early spring flowers and has never visited before, to plan a tour to Colesbourne at least once. Click here for more. Very many thanks are due to Sir Henry and Lady Carolyn for giving us such a warm and personal welcome.
Back home, on a much more limited scale, we have had our own succession of garden visitors, and more snowdrop hunt visits to fit into what has been one our busiest ever months since we “retired” to Wales. Some old friends even arrived bearing an unnamed snowdrop of immense proportions. Any ideas anyone, as to what it is?
On the wider smallholding scale, we had a small pond dug out in our upper wet meadow some 17 years ago, thinking it would be a great environment for amphibians, and invertebrates like damsel and dragon flies. We didn’t expect that unusual plant species like Lesser bladderwort, Utricularia minor, which Richard Pryce, the county’s botanical recorder, found in it last August, would move in so quickly.
Then about 3 years ago we began to wonder what was predating the frogs and toads – we kept finding half eaten bodies on the banks around spawning time.Eventually, we worked out that these were half eaten toads, and that possibly otters were responsible since some otter populations have worked out how to do this, and leave the toxic parts of the toad behind.
Last year we’d borrowed a trail camera and caught a few fuzzy images of an otter (above). This year we had acquired our own and had it set up for much of the time since the first frogspawn appeared in this pond on February 2nd.
What we didn’t expect to see was what the poor frogs have to contend with.
It seems many birds and animals want a piece of the action. The toads have still not arrived, but I’ve now worked out that from a distance the frogs can be clearly heard, and frequent ripples seen on the surface where they break through. But move too quickly or loudly, and they all dive and try to hide themselves in the muddy base of the pond. And being amphibians that retain a capacity to absorb oxygen through their skin, they can stay there for several hours.
First up in the predator stakes is the buzzard which always selects a higher vantage point, away from the pond’s edge before making a snatch and grab attempt on an unsuspecting frogBut it’s not a foregone conclusion it will succeed, and it seems from the pictures below that frog reaction times are sufficiently fast, to allow it to leap out of reach of those talons, at least some of the time.
Look closely at the image above. The grey splurge to the right of the buzzard’s head, with bulging eyes is a frog leaping for its life to escape. And a wet, empty taloned, buzzard on the bank afterwards, below.
It’s also interesting that the otter and fox photos immediately above, were taken within about 10 seconds of each other. Presumably the fox was looking into the pond at the otter, which then emerged onto the bank.
I even found some pellets on the bank, which I first took to be fur balls, but someone else has told me are probably regurgitated fur pellets from the buzzard. And also what may be a buzzard’s explosive linear defaecation? A black sludge followed by a long, 30 cm plus, white line. Ideas anyone?
All the frogs seem to spawn in just two quite small sections of the pond very close to the bank – probably less than 5 % of the total pond area. And I’ve a suspicion that these are the same bits of bank chosen each year. The question is why? Whilst one area could perhaps be a little warmer, since it’s more South facing, the other one is quite shaded and North facing.
On one of the images from the camera, above, I studied it for ages to work out what had triggered the infra-red movement sensor, which activates the camera exposure. And then I thought I could see, with the eye of faith which comes from years of studying monochrome X rays for subtle tonal changes, a vague owl silhouette just above the pond’s surface in the centre of the image. Mentioning this to a friend, Colin, who is a fellow Cothi Gardener and on the steering group with me, of Carmarthenshire Meadows group, he sent me a couple of video clips from this month, which he’s recorded from his own pond. He witnessed a tawny owl fly in to perch on the top rung of the stepladder on which his homemade camera /monitor is set up. It then takes off from this vantage point and plucks a frog off the pond’s surface, much as an osprey would catch a fish. Quite an extraordinary thing to have captured and be able to watch.
We’re even more glad now that we decided to have the simple pond dug out, all those years ago, since it’s obviously a hive of activity, even at night.
And even in February.