An Idyllic Calm? Or Perfect Storm?

What a fortnight!

Spanning the days between two saintly commemorations.

Firstly, Italian martyr St. Valentine, tortured and then put to death on February 14th 269, after refusing to revoke his faith to the emperor Claudius. Beaten with clubs and then beheaded in front of the Flaminian gate in Rome. Strangely forgotten history this, in the fog of today’s commercialised love fest, though the contemporary focus on romance and exchanged cards apparently comes from the imprisoned saint sending a note to his jailer’s daughter, who through his prayers he’d supposedly healed from blindness, and signing it from “Your Valentine”. Click here for much more on the reality and legends surrounding Valentine.

Secondly, our very own Welsh patron Saint David, Dewi Sant. Living between about 500 and 589 A.D., he established religious settlements not just in Wales, but also in Dunmonia (today’s Devon and Cornwall region) as well as in Brittany. Rising to prominence after preaching at the Synod of Brefi, in mid Wales. A small hill is reported to have arisen at the site of his oratory, and a white dove was seen to land on his shoulder, which forever after became his emblem, and early visible sign of special influence. The village, about 40 minutes from us, has been known ever since as Llanddewi Brefi.

Promoting a simple, possession free, vegetarian life, his last recorded words to his followers as he died from natural causes included a phrase which is apparently still in common use in the Welsh language today, and translates as “Do ye the little things in life” (“Gwnewch y pethau bychain mewn bywyd”). Click here for more. Not a bad epitaph for today’s frantic world.

I knew none of the above detail, when I hit on the idea of calling a particular area of the garden, which hits its peak around this time of the year, “David and Valentine’s bed”, below.

Yet during this last fortnight, not only has this part of the garden excelled, but there’s also been frenetic activity within the garden, and also for its minders, and visitors.

Perhaps rashly I’d committed to 3 showings of my new hour long snowdrop related presentation “Confessions of a Galanthophile”, within the space of 10 days. Aided as always by Fiona, and holding a mini-snowdrop auction on each occasion, this proved very popular, and we ended up meeting some lovely people.

At the very special winter gardening weekend at Llandysul, Richard Bramley and his team from Farmyard Nurseries put on a fabulous show, running over 3 days, including a beautiful stage display to rival any found at the big garden shows in the UK throughout the year.  Click here for more on the event. If you think of visiting next year, do wrap up well since the hall can be quite cold, and I ended up keeping my Beanie hat on for the whole talk. But then I am a sensitive soul.

That the event and all talks are free to visitors makes it even more amazing, and blessed with clement weather it’s not surprising that it’s apparently grown by 20% annually. Worth writing in your diaries now for 2020.

One of the audience at this event, suggested that I should visit the churchyard at Merthyr Mawr, a village I hadn’t even heard of before and located just outside Bridgend, to see the snowdrops there. A flurry of emails with the amazing churchwarden, saw us whizzing down to meet her and her husband and looking round the day before our official NGS garden open weekend.

The churchyard didn’t disappoint, with an amazing mix of snowdrops, crocus and daffodils planted between the gravestones, creating beautiful tapestries of colour. Later on, bluebells take over providing floral interest into May, and these grassy areas, critically, are left unmown into the summer to allow viable seed from all these bulbs to fall to the ground. We’ve never such a display within a churchyard before.

There is considerable snowdrop variation evident here, probably in part because the snowdrops have been present for centuries, but also because the church is part of an estate village, complete with several beautiful thatched cottages, surrounding the lands of the large, early C19th Merthyr Mawr House, which has remained in the same family’s ownership since it was first constructed. Hence it’s likely, that honeybees will always have been kept nearby to ensure good flower pollination and seed set – even with early flowering snowdrops.

Mentioning this to our hosts and guides, Mary and Christopher, they pointed out that for the last several years, the church has gone one better, and has its own resident bee colony, entering beneath the roof’s flashing, which was obviously active in the warm sunshine on the day of our visit.

A feature of the landscape and geology nearby is the very unusual soil. Since the Middle Ages, the coastal region to the West of Merthyr Mawr has suffered from dramatic and repeated coastal erosion and “be-sandment”. Huge deposits of sand being deposited inland by wind and storm surges, sufficient to bury many early settlements and buildings. Kenfig itself, now the site of extensive sand dunes, was abandoned by around 1470 because of sand ingress, and this past geology is obvious in the soil of the churchyard, where the snowdrops flourish in dark sandy “soil” which is probably over 50% wind blown, sea origin, material. Click here, and here, for more on the geography and history of this special place. A few sample bulbs have now joined those which constitute the database of our Welsh Historic Snowdrop Hunt snowdrops which we have growing in our garden – probably now over 130 forms from nearly 70 sites.

Back now to more thoughts on the garden this February. In my last post, I mentioned how honeybees had started to become active in our garden in early February, during occasional sunny moments. As Valentine’s day dawned, the weather had changed. A high pressure system built, and sucked in warm air from the Azores. Thursday and Friday, the 14th and 15th, were warm and sunny all day. The garden came alive in a way we’d never witnessed before. All the years of planting bulbs and other flowers with appeal to early pollinators had paid off. We’ve never witnessed such intense bee activity in any garden before at any time of the year. For example there are at least 6 honey bees in the image above. Word clearly got spread back to the hive, and by lunchtime on both days, hundreds if not thousands of bees were actively harvesting pollen and nectar from the hundreds of thousands of open flowers. It was intensely exciting, almost emotionally so, to witness this. Piet Oudolf et al, eat your hearts out – grasses and dead perennial foliage may be lovely with frosts on, but I wish I could share the wonderful total flower, scent, movement, and sound experience that a late winter garden can be, if massed bulb flowers are incorporated into planting schemes.

Alive, not dead.

Vibrant, not dormant.

We also recorded the first bumblebee of the year on Valentine’s day, an emergent Bombus lucorum queen, as well as a nectaring Peacock, Aglais io, and Red admiral, Vanessa atalanta, butterfly. I’ll finish this post with just how different our garden experience was, compared with the flower-free desert, that is typical of much of West Wales’ agricultural landscape at this time of the year.

But as the weather became a little cloudier over the weekend, I suddenly wondered whether our bees could run out of storage space so early in the year, and if so, what would happen. After all, huge quantities of pollen and nectar must have been harvested by this constant activity, from before 9.00 am until nearly 4 pm each day.

Tony, our beekeeper, after having similar thoughts, felt it sensible to arrange a quick inspection, and the photos below, show his approach to this. Conventional beekeeping wisdom would counter against ever opening a hive at this time of the year, since there is a risk that chilling of the bees could cause significant fatalities of bees, and more particularly developing brood (bee larvae), so these photos may represent an unusual insight into what is going on in a beehive in mid-February, when the weather is unseasonably warm, and the bees have access to abundant nectar and pollen sources. (there are simply NO flowers open in the wider landscape around here yet, except on a few distant gorse bushes).

Below: lighting the smoker – my job was to keep the bellows working and puff smoke onto the bees when requested, to drive them down and into the hive.

Lifting the top off the hive and revealing the store of candy supplement, beneath an insulating foam mat, supplied to the bees as back up feed in early January – largely untouched over the last few weeks.

Freeing up the stuck down top board over the combs, then quickly replacing the board with an unrolled cloth to keep the bees warm and still largely in the dark.

Freeing up some outer frames of comb and eventually lifting a couple out for inspection.

Tony pointed out the brown capped cells which house recently laid eggs which have and developed into bee larvae, which having been fed to maturity are now entombed for the pupation and metamorphosis phase. The queen reduces egg laying in late autumn/winter, but will begin again when food – pollen and nectar – begin to be brought into the hive by worker bees in spring.

There are also paler capped cells to the right edge of the frame which contain stored honey, as well as some empty cells. Apparently bees always leave a few empty cells within the comb and these can then be occupied by special “heater bees”, which enter the empty cells head first and by uncoupling their flight muscles and effectively shivering, can maintain an average thoracic temperature of around 43 degrees C and as a result are capable of warming larvae in adjacent cells. These heater bees use a huge amount of honey to generate their higher body temperatures – perhaps 10 degrees C higher than other “normal” bees in the colony – but play a critical role in aiding bee larva development particularly early in the year. Click here for more details on this amazing process. 

Tony’s verdict was that the bees seemed fine, and that there was still sufficient space for them to expand their numbers in readiness for the year ahead, so that no further frames, or action, were needed. The whole inspection was completed very smoothly, and quickly and it was particularly interesting for me, as my first glimpse inside the bee colony.

I’ve recently wondered about the significance of the bees bringing in so much pollen and nectar from snowdrops, which is probably laden with some of the vast range of alkaloids like galantamine found in different snowdrop species. Many of these chemicals have actions on our own brain’s neurotransmitter chemicals. Indeed, one of these compounds, galantamine, is currently one of the most popular drugs used in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

What effect might these alkaloids have on bee brain function? Or indeed bee larval neuro chemistry, and development? Might it even have been significant in a co- evolutionary development allowing some of the very complex social and organisational strategies and behaviour which characterise honeybee ecology. The Western honey bee, Apis mellifera, (the most common of the dozen or so honeybee species worldwide), and Galanthus (snowdrop) species seem to have quite similar indigenous ranges. Who knows, but a final thought is what function are these complex alkaloid chemicals actually providing to the snowdrop plant? Click here for more insight into just how diverse this range of chemicals is.

These floral – insect interactions, in spite of modest cool breezes within the garden during these special days, represented to me an almost spiritual sense of idyllic calm, natural harmony and interaction, in spite of the near constant buzzing which filled the garden.

They have also been part of a perfect storm for seed production this year, and probably seedling germination, given that our slug population is still extraordinarily low after last year’s freezing spring and dry summer. In addition, our amphibian and reptile populations seem really healthy. Most torch lit, night time forays, now highlight as many frogs, toads and newts, as slugs.

The following days were more mixed, weather wise, though still with no hard frosts, and then the weekend of our NGS garden opening was predicted to get even warmer still. Indeed, this happened, and by Tuesday, nearby Trawscoed in West Ceredigion, had set a new maximum February temperature for the whole of the UK of 20.6 degrees. Wednesday saw even this broken by Porthmadog in North Wales with 20.8 degrees C. Click here for more on February’s record breaking weather.

All this exceptional and predicted weather meant that not only was the garden looking great, but that we were expecting greater visitor numbers than ever before. We had a very clear strategy for managing this, with limited numbers pre-booked into our limited parking space, for morning and afternoon visits over the weekend.

Sadly, this all unravelled somewhat as several people, in some cases encouraged by inaccurate, and unrequested national and local media coverage of our garden, arrived unannounced at various points through the day, several having driven nearly 2 hours to find us.Sincere apologies for those who we had to turn away, and those who found the garden busier than expected. To re-iterate for any who read this – though frankly the biggest problem was with visitors who’ve never bothered to visit our garden website – we only ever allow visitors who have made pre-arranged appointments to view Gelli Uchaf.

There will have to be serious thought on our part as to how we open in future – we’re minded to limit it to only those who read this blog, or are on a separate “interested party” email list. That way we can notify people personally, with no risk of it leaking out into the mainstream media as happened this year. Neither our special (and in some areas fragile), garden, nor the gardeners (!) can cope with too many people at one time. Fiona coped amazingly, with single-handedly serving over 110 teas and cakes, whilst instead of having time to chat with visitors, I was mainly functioning as parking supervisor/traffic policeman/security. However this particular cloud did have a small silver lining – I spotted a bright yellow butterfly flitting up our steep track as another car hove into view. Camera round my neck, I raised my clip board with list of pre-booked visitors and halted the car at a distance, whilst I took some photos. Not only a pristine Brimstone, Gonepteryx rhamni, butterfly, rarely seen up here and never before mid-summer, but also selectively nectaring from primroses, which otherwise seem to be largely ignored flowers by all our bees in the spring garden’s diverse selection. In spite of the downside of being nearly overwhelmed, most of our visitors seemed to enjoy the gardens (and shepherd’s hut!) and expressed an interest in returning sometime in the future.

We have another pre-booked group due to visit shortly, but they will see a very different garden. Most snowdrops will have finished, the daffodils and Camellias should be emerging, and the temperatures and showers will be more typical of early March. It may indeed be a very long time before these particular idyllic scenes are bettered here.

A particular thrill was having a couple of visitors who were both professors in the field of plant biology, and may be able to help me in my quest for an answer to a question which has piqued my interest and which came to light over the last month, as I finished putting together my snowdrop talk and images.

After probably taking over 30,000 photos of snowdrops over the last few years, I got excited viewing the latest batch one night, when I found that one image showed very distinctive white tips to the leaves.

And then I checked other images, and found that all snowdrop leaves seem to be like this. In other words, the leaf tips have no chlorophyll present.

Checking the leaf tips of equally early flowering Iris reticulata, I found exactly the same white colouration. I ran this past the RHS scientists. Had they any explanation, for what was going on at a cellular level, or indeed had anyone noticed this, or written about it? And although a reply came back very speedily, they couldn’t really provide a definitive answer for what was occurring within the cells in the white areas. No one in any of my presentations ever seemed to have noticed this either, and I can’t find any explanations on line. My own hypothesis is that such leaf tips will be subject to amazing pressures/forces as the growing leaf tip is forced up through often hard or stony soil, or past immoveable structures like roots in the soil, and therefore may have modified cellular structures or features, which is why no chlorophyll seems to be present. Perhaps the leaf cells even have metal deposits (think tungsten tipped drills) to aid their passage from beneath the ground surface? Click here and here for some examples of studies of insects, and their use of metal deposits, principally manganese and zinc, to toughen up certain parts of their anatomy.Noni and Chris didn’t have any quick solutions to my query about white snowdrop leaf tips, but will put out feelers amongst their scientific network, and did pass on to me that the hydrostatic pressures inside growing plant cells can be immense – sometimes several times higher than inside a typical car tyre. Many thanks to them both, and for tolerating me talking shop on their day out visiting a remote Welsh garden! Click here for a review article on turgor pressures in different plant tissues. If nobody has an answer to my query, perhaps in due course, it would make an interesting topic for some further research.

Finally, and as if to reinforce the message we give to our visitors that we feel this is a very special place, I was watering some recently sown seeds this week, designed to add more flower power for our bees over the summer once our daffodil trial beds have died down, when I was aware of a light brushing sensation on my right forearm. Thinking a spider or fly had landed, I glanced down and immediately shouted down to Fiona to grab my camera from inside. Being up the stepladder at the time, she wasn’t that keen, but I told her we’d never see this again. Fortunately, my new companion, a Common or Viviparous lizard, Zootoca vivipara, wasn’t fazed and allowed several photos to be taken, before I gently encouraged her (?) back onto terra firma.

Quite what this indicates for my eventual direction of travel isn’t clear, though it’s not as obviously encouraging as St. David’s white dove!

And very finally a comparison, entirely unscientific but still interesting, of bee numbers in our garden, and the nearby Pembrokeshire and Cardiganshire countryside this week.

An 836 step one way walk around the visitor route in our garden this week between 1.45 and 2.15 pm saw me counting 29 different bumblebee queens (4 different species), 2 butterflies and 22 honeybees. The top 5 flowers being visited in order of popularity (most of our snowdrops were over by the time I did this walk): Hellebore hybrids, Crocus tommasinianus, Daphne bholua, Scilla mischtschenkoana and Galanthus (snowdrops).

On average, 1 bee seen per 17 steps.

And then.

3 days of walks, totalling 34,169 steps in rural but mainly quite intensive dairy pasture and wooded valleys, in Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion, with plenty of gorse, blackthorn, laurel, the first few dandelions, pink campion, some snowdrops and native Narcissus pseudonarcissus. Where we saw the grand total of 1 honeybee, 2 butterflies and 4 bumblebee queens (1 species). Certainly a couple of the days were cooler, but the Wednesday walk was one of those warmest ever February afternoons.

On average, 1 bee seen per 6,833 steps.

Worth planting more insect friendly flowers in our gardens?

I rest my case.

PS… WordPress informed me yesterday that I’d been writing my blog posts now for 8 years, and it seems I still haven’t run out of things to photograph or discuss. Thanks to anyone who has kept following me for some of this time.



14 thoughts on “An Idyllic Calm? Or Perfect Storm?

  1. There’s a lot of food for thought in this post. The garden impressionists are certainly living up to the name. I can imagine such wonderfully flower/sun/bee filled pictures as these attracting many more visitors than you can comfortably handle, so you have a quandary.

  2. It is such a pleasure to share your garden through the posts and wonderful photographs. It seems such a hectic but wonderful period and certainly enhanced by the bees. Amelia

  3. Julian…another splendid, post full of interesting facts and wonderful photos. You have such a beautiful garden no wonder people want to visit…but the cat is out the bag now so no idea how you can stop everyone coming to visit! It’s been amazing seeing the activity in the garden with buzzing everywhere and fluttering butterflies all round…let’s hope they are all OK as this storm blows over today! St Julian sounds right up your street! Fiona’s already a saint coping with all that catering! Best wishes to you both.

    • Thanks Marianne – Fiona is indeed a saint! It was amazing having the lizard on my arm, in February too – and the lightest of touches with its tiny toes… Battered here tonight and a garden group coming tomorrow… no such delights for them, I fear…
      Best wishes

  4. I recently blogged about visiting a local church yard renowned for its snowdrops, it to had a bee colony in the church tower.
    What a coincidence!

    • Hello Brian,
      Thanks for that – just looked at your churchyard, and it too looks amazing – a real floral treat. Such a shame that most aren’t managed in this sympathetic way, and I’m sure the on site bees are a key part of them being so vibrant – plus the bees know a thing or two about where to set up home and survive with no human, though (possibly divine?) intervention! We’ll have to see if we can make it to this church one year to have a look!
      Best wishes

  5. Always a pleasure to read, to explore the many pathways you point toward, and of course lovely images. I was particularly intrigued by the complexity of the lizard/forearm kaleidoscope image — is that the end result of endless hours in Photoshop, or is there an app for that?

    • Hello Tim,
      Thanks for the kind comment… re the lizard kaleidoscope it was done in our cheapo Corel photoshop programme. We used to do lots of these, as a basis for our scar designs- and they can take hours- though rarely kaleidoscope, since I don’t normally like it, but I rather fancied playing with the lizards patterned body and toes…probably 15 mins max…
      Best wishes

  6. Congratulations on your 8 years of blogging! Your blog is my favorite place – I always learn new things here, I enjoy your photography and simply feel happy reading about your garden ❤

  7. Pingback: What’s a Long Time? | thegardenimpressionists

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