From Afar – Alchemy and Trusst. Pollen, Populations and Purple Punk.

Oh, joy!

Oh, well.

Oh, dear.

How to begin beneath a banner image suffused with golden light? It seems I’m not the only one entranced and fixated by October sunrises.

We’re in the fleeting season of alchemy. Always a time of uncertainty and unpredictable effects within a garden, and this year playing out, at least here and thus far, in glorious fashion.

Meanwhile, in the distant, real world

But more on this later.

Reflecting on what I thought I knew about alchemy in the dark of an early morning wake-up I did a quick trawl for its etymology and settled on this fascinating insight from the Royal Society of Chemistry, which I’ll quote directly since it succinctly contains much that was completely new to me:

“The art of alchemy was handed down through the centuries from Egypt and Arabia to Greece and Rome, and finally to western and central Europe. The word is derived from the Arabian phrase “al-kimia,” which refers to the preparation of the Stone or Elixir by the Egyptians. The Arabic root “kimia” comes from the Coptic “khem” which alluded to the fertile black soil of the Nile delta. Esoterically and hieroglyphically, the word refers to the dark mystery of the primordial or First Matter (the Khem).

Simplified, the aims of the alchemists were threefold: to find the Stone of Knowledge (The Philosophers’ Stone), to discover the medium of Eternal Youth and Health, and to discover the transmutation of metals. To the medieval alchemist’s mind, the different elements were but the same original substance in varying degrees of purity. Gold was the purest of all and silver followed closely.

In the early days of alchemy, the astronomical signs of the planets were also used as alchemical symbols. Then in the centuries of medieval persecution and suppression every alchemist invented his own secret symbols. Charlatans, quacks and cheats took over and alchemy became, along with sorcery and witchcraft, infamous for fraud and extortion. In the 18th century scientists tried to pry loose the real achievements in chemistry, pharmacology and medicine from this confusing cornucopia of science and magic.

Gold ( its symbol is above) is one of the seven metals of alchemy (gold, silver, mercury, copper, lead, iron & tin). For the alchemist, it represented the perfection of all matter on any level, including that of the mind, spirit, and soul. The symbol for gold could also be used to represent the sun in astrology.”

But alchemy in the garden? I was musing on how autumnal colours appear, as if by magic. Thanks to the biochemists and botanists, we’ve begun to understand in recent years the processes by which all manner of exotic golds, yellows, reds, oranges and purples appear in the leaves of many of our shrubs, trees and perennials at this time of the year. Since I wrote a significant piece about this over 10 years ago, I’ll include some of it here as a reminder, with some contemporary photos from the garden:

My starting point was a couple of internet review articles which I’ll provide links to (click here) by Philipe Matile “Biochemistry of Indian summer: physiology of autumnal leaf colouration” and (here) “Why leaves turn red in autumn” by Taylor, Feild, Lee and Holbrook. Unfortunately, they are fairly technical and packed with scientific jargon relating to biochemistry and microbiology, so I’ll attempt a simplifying summary that hopefully won’t offend any with degrees in plant biochemistry who might happen upon this.

(Astilbes have a certain charm as the leaves yellow, and flower heads bronze).

We all know that most plants are green and that this colour is the result of chlorophyll molecules, an organic  pigment which has the fantastic property of being able to help capture the energy from the sun’s radiation and utilise it through a series of complex chemical reactions to create useful and larger carbohydrate molecules from very simple raw materials. This photosynthesis process is indeed at the very ‘root’ of most life on earth.

(Cornus kousa ‘Miss Satomi’ with Cornus ‘Midwinter Fire’ behind.)

The chlorophyll molecules don’t just float around in a chemical soup within the individual cells of a leaf structure. They’re organised on membranes within separate structures or organelles (think mini-organs), called chloroplasts. Typically there are more than 100 of these chloroplasts in a single leaf cell. For all those perennial plants like trees and shrubs which live in temperate climates, there is a big issue of what to do as the growing season ceases and winter approaches. Some evergreens have developed structures and techniques to retain leaves through this harsher season. Many ‘opt’ to lose their leaves completely and begin again the following year. But this is potentially very wasteful of resources, in particular of the complex molecules like chlorophyll, which the plant has had to create during the growing period. So, as the days shorten and temperatures fall, the plant starts to mobilise resources from the leaves and withdraw them to the woody, more permanent parts to be available next season.

( One of many Un-named Acer seedlings staggering their show over several weeks).

As an initial part of this process, the chloroplast is structurally changed into a different form called a gerontoplast, and the chlorophyll molecules are then broken down, to save the useful components, and get rid of more toxic parts. As this happens the chlorophyll loses its green colour, and hence its greening effect on the leaf, becoming colourless, simpler compounds. As a result, other pigments which have been present within the leaf’s structure all along but have been masked by the pervasive green can now show themselves. In particular, the yellows and oranges of many autumn leaves are thus created by the presence of various pre-existing carotenoid pigments.(As with the part shade-grown Viburnum furcatum, above, a reliable if fleeting stunner).

These normally hidden pigments have a role in protecting the chloroplasts and hence the leaf cells from internal oxidative damage, which can result from overactive sunlight-affected chlorophyll molecules. Viewed simplistically, the colour pigments help to dissipate excessive and damaging energy within the cell – bear in mind we’re thinking of an amazing little factory unit here, working overtime when the sun shines, with lots of energy and chemical production involved. How ‘clever’ to have your own in-built system of checks and balances to prevent overloads and what a fantastic economy of design and effort on the plant’s part. The spin-off in autumn of the carotenoids’ moment, centre stage, is that we can marvel at the myriad of colour changes in our gardens and landscape at this time of the year.(The tulip tree, Liriodendron tulipifera, another reliably beautiful yellow)

But hang on a minute, what about the reds seen in some species of plants? Where does this colour come from in plants like the Viburnum plicatum mariesii below?Well, this is where the situation becomes even more complex.(A stunning red display from one of our Sorbus ulleungensis‘ Olympic Flame’).

These red and purple colours are produced by different pigments in the anthocyanin group of molecules. And they don’t normally exist within these leaves’ structures. (Though they can exist in other plant materials – think ripe red apple skins, for example). It’s been suggested that in other circumstances where they do normally exist, these anthocyanins also have a role as chemical sunscreens preventing cellular damage – a role they’re well suited to since as red or purple pigments, they tend to absorb most of the blue-green light wavelengths.

(The ever reliable and earliest red leaf change in our garden from Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’. Its viable seedlings often inherit this feature and leaf form, below).

The first article I read couldn’t come up with a rational explanation of quite why an ageing leaf in its final dying stages, and when its biochemistry processes start to focus on economically salvaging useful materials from the soon-to-be-shed leaf, should suddenly begin to synthesise a completely new chemical form. Just as it was simultaneously trying to withdraw these resources into the woody centre of the plant. Matile speculated that perhaps it was just a curious non-functional anomaly, and as a result, we benefited from an even wider palette of autumn leaf colour changes in the relatively few plants where anthocyanins were formed.

More interestingly to me with my gardener’s hat on  – (which incidentally is worn most of the time to protect my ears from the sun – too many cases of amputating squamous cell carcinoma from the tips of cat’s ears is to blame! Perhaps we mammals could do with some anthocyanins in our ear tips. Wouldn’t that be fun? Never mind Spock ears, how about a race with red or purple tints developing in their ear lobes as summer approached) – was the hypothesis in the second article.

(Cornus controversa, above, is another developing star as it grows taller. Reliable, shimmering leaf colour change, although it doesn’t always hold its leaves as well as this year – this is not the more popular ‘variegata’ form, which I put my foot down about allowing!).

This focused on leaf colour changes in Cornus sericea, and postulates that even at this terminal stage of leaf degradation and decay, the new pigment has a vital sparing effect on the leaf cells’ contents from becoming damaged by the effects of UV radiation. So in essence, even as the plant leaf is dying, it really is worthwhile making a completely new chemical to allow the process to complete more efficiently. The group of researchers were able to show that red Cornus leaves, where the anthocyanins are produced just before the chlorophyll molecules begin to be broken down, are indeed less susceptible to oxidative damage than equivalent leaves with no red pigments. Again how impressive is that as a design feature?At this point, since we have closely related Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ above, growing in various areas of the garden, I thought I should get out with my camera. And finally, this is where all the above science led me. If you look at the Cornus leaves in various parts of the garden, and then at other species with red autumnal tints in the leaves, you do indeed find that the colours in many are most pronounced in those leaves exposed to full sunlight. Leaves more hidden and shaded at the plant’s centre often show no red colouration at all.Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ planted in the most sunny location in the garden, and below the inner leaves on this clump.And below a clump in a slightly shadier part of the garden.So WHAT? I can almost hear you sigh.

Of what relevance is autumn leaf colour physiology to gardeners?

Well, perhaps the gardener armed with a basic understanding of autumn leaf colour physiology would not only carefully select plants, or even specific cultivars of plants to give an autumnal leaf display bonfire, but also consider:

  • Planting them, if possible, to maximise sunlight exposure, particularly if you’re after reddish tints.

This is Sorbus ulleungensis‘ Olympic Flame’, performing well, but giving a relatively brief and early display. Many Sorbus cultivars don’t seem to retain coloured leaves (at least here) for a very long period. It’s also the same tree cultivar as the very red one featured before, which became a much more intense red colour, and coloured up 2 weeks earlier, but has now lost most of its leaves since it’s more exposed and receives more sunlight.

  • Being aware that no matter how well exposed to sunlight they are, if they’re exposed to strong prevailing winds, the leaves may all be blown off before they’ve had a chance to colour up.

We planted several home-grown Amalanchier canadensis in a block. They look fabulous in spring, but they catch the prevailing winds in an exposed position in the autumn, so this is all we ever see of their potential autumnal display.

  • Planning for a seasonal progression of colour, just as one would do with spring bulbs. This is perhaps quite tricky to do, unless you visit a garden with a good progression of autumn leaf colour on several return visits because even a week can see dramatic changes in colour. And it’s very difficult to glean from any text that I’ve seen, just how one species will relate its timing of leaf colour change to another species. Even worse, how it might then vary in your garden. And even worse still, how it will vary from year to year. Whoever thought that garden design was easy? The other benefit of revisiting an autumnally interesting garden frequently will be to give some idea of just how long a plant will hang onto its leaves, in various colour stages, and whether it tends to shed them all together, or sequentially over a longer period.
  • Finally on top of all the above, the actual or even relative timings of autumn leaf colour are hugely variable. It’s generally thought that clear sunny days followed by cool frost-free nights will give the best displays. This seems a logical corollary from all the above about sunscreens and anthocyanin production – and why ‘fall’ in the Eastern states of the U.S.A. is so consistently spectacular.

But back to 2022, and my very recent thoughts about autumnal alchemy in the garden. It struck me that these glorious, fleeting colours are always both a delight and a mystery. The alchemy works spontaneously, with no effort from the gardener, almost like a reward for the toil throughout the previous seasons. One simply has to take the time to appreciate it, and notice its progression. Then, all too swiftly in our climate, the show is over. A stormy spell, and the coloured leaves are quickly shed to briefly colour carpet the ground. The alchemy is over. The twigs and branches laid bare.

(Euonymus europaeus ‘Red Cascade’), leaves, above).

Yes, we might have planted the small shrubs or trees years ago, widely spaced, but we really had no idea how the displays would work, the plant and leaf colours relate, and the fleeting vistas of these few weeks from mid-October onwards would develop. It is indeed unplanned, glorious, and risk free alchemy. Perhaps autumn appeals more to ageing gardeners? It certainly seems to becoming a favourite time of year for me.

(Unknown seed grown Acer, above).

But what of the other huge and questionable alchemy which has recently been uncovered, and brought to light. The very curious concept of that new acronym LDI, (Liability-Driven Investing), which seems to have taken centre stage in the last fortnight in the UK, although it’s evidently been gradually building in significance to the point that now, at £1.5 trillion, it represents about 60% of all pension fund investments in the UK. Such a clever wheeze, it seemed, that was kept under wraps by those in the know until the recent debacle and sell off in UK government bonds, with resulting hikes in yields suddenly caused mass panic and enforced further selling, to raise liquid cash to meet  rising liabilities.

It even took a week or so for the range of media which I reference to scramble to describe to the layman, exactly what was going on. All cooked up, it seems, by clever bankers who saw that by using those infamous “derivatives”, and slicing, dicing, re-packaging and flogging debt to pension schemes large and small, a nice cut could be creamed off. Silly old me, and it would appear nearly everyone else, for not being aware of the scale of these trades, and the implications for pretty much anyone with an additional pension scheme to the basic state pension. Have you ever asked where exactly your valuable pot of money, carefully accumulated over your working lifetime, was invested? I’ve struggled to comprehend the dodgy concepts involved, so click here to see just how plainly (?) Schroders (one of the top firms in the UK advocating this), attempt to explain this concept to mere mortals. I prefer Warren Buffet’s observation from 20 years ago, that:

“In my view, derivatives are financial weapons of mass destruction, carrying dangers that, while now latent, are potentially lethal”.

The panicky sudden market sell off of government bonds by British pension funds struggling to raise sufficient capital reserves in a falling bond market are what led to the extraordinary Bank of England intervention early in the morning of Wednesday September 28th – to prevent a complete collapse of British pension fund financing. But no one in authority seems to have seen it coming. (Actually, Lord Wolfson and the CFO of Next had written to the BOE in 2017 after becoming aware of the growing trend for these new schemes, warning of a future blow-up. And for a typically pertinent insight, read Terry Smith’s opinion). However, then chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng paid the price a few days later, losing his job, but it was he and Liz Truss whose earlier “fiscal event” had included a measure to remove a cap on the clever banker’s bonuses so that we could actually attract more of these latter day alchemists to our shores.

I shall at this point share an enlightening recent discussion with Oliver Bullough, in which he discusses the background to how Britain, and more specifically the City of London, has come to play such a key role in the world’s system of movements of capital/money, and how by striving to maintain this unique status over nearly 70 years, it’s led Britain to its current status, as Bullough sees it, as “Butler to the World” and thus “Became the Servant of Tycoons, Tax Dodgers, Kleptocrats and Criminals”  – the title of Bullough’s recent book.

Personally, I found this an extremely timely though depressing insight into some critical background to the ongoing unprecedented political debacle in the UK, which I’m sure leaves many people both in the UK and further afield at their wit’s end. Whether it provides any real clues as to how we can achieve some sort of a national re-set, is, I fear, too much to ask.

Would those flies or spiders I imagined on the wall of Buckingham Palace, just 6 long weeks ago still be there, or will they have dropped off in amazement by now, after the latest unrecorded discussions? Following on from reading Lars Chittka’s revelations about the very poor general auditory perception in most insects, a fly on the wall wouldn’t, it seems, be able to distinguish between such similar sounds as Truss, Tryst, Trusst, Trust or Trussed. Perhaps a hidden microphone would indeed be necessary to pick up the nuanced options. Oh dear…


Along with the delights of the (garden) alchemy scene, it’s always exciting to see how active our local origin on-site honey bees still are at this time of the year, in spite of chilly mornings, and yesterday, really strong, gusty, Easterly winds up to 68 kmph. We’re heading into winter with 5 active colonies, and as always they’re often visible in numbers around the garden in late October, since we still have many nectar and pollen rich flowers for them – in the wider environment almost all native plants have finished flowering other than ivy, and more dispersed bushes of gorse flowers.

(Notice the still-around drone, above).

For years I’ve pondered the number of distinct colonies that might be optimal for a single location. It’s an issue which rarely seems to be discussed, and many commercial apiaries have multiple colonies, one next to another. There are so many variable factors affecting this – climate, weather, near-hive and further afield forage options, and length of season availability of this, as well as how well insulated the colony home structures are, and whether honey is ever removed from them. Of all these, available food is the really critical one, and many years of observation and effort in planting up the garden with appropriate insect friendly flowers, for as long a season as possible helps to support colonies, particularly at the beginning and end of each season. But I’ve come to realise that the biggest factor is availability of forage en-masse in the local landscape. We’re exceptionally fortunate in this regard in our upland, rather unkempt and patchily under-utilised agricultural scene. Given locally adapted bees which can cope with the vagaries of the weather, the abundance of nectar and pollen options trumps all issues.

However! It seems that there’s a growing tide of anti-honey bee eco-warriors who question whether keeping any honey bees is a rational thing to do because of their competitive resource exploitation as generalist foragers on the very diverse and more local populations of often more specialised pollinating insects, be that bees, flies or even butterflies. By chance, just before I was going to write this piece and include a link to another fascinating foray into this topic by Torben Schiffer, Rusty of Honeybee Suite in America wrote this excellent review of the subject, (Once folk heroes, beekeepers are under attack) which has also been published recently in the American Bee Journal. It was a shock to read that in the U.S.A. there are some anti-honey bee zealots who are now destroying honey bee colonies because of their perceived risk to indigenous, native bees and other pollinators. The tide seems to be turning against honey bee keepers, and no doubt similar action might begin to occur elsewhere.

(See the video below – “How modern beekeeping enhances nectar competition and contributes to species extinction of wild pollinators”.)

My own anecdotal observations suggest no significant drop off (yet?) in numbers of bumble bees or other pollinators, other than the significant cyclical changes which seem to happen with many insect forms. but then as regular readers will know, “my” on-site colonies are largely left to their own devices, in small well insulated boxes, with minimal honey harvested. However this is an interesting area of debate which it’s worth thinking about, and monitoring. The current number of colonies now dotted around the garden is definitely my maximum, which I expect will fluctuate as seasons and years dictate.


Just now, numbers of honey bees in each colony will have fallen dramatically from their summer peak, and even the physiology of the individual worker bees changes as autumn approaches. This is not the time for another lengthy discussion on “winter bees” which have to survive for many months, rather than the few weeks of the typical summer honey bee, but the availability of diverse pollen in autumn is really critical for allowing healthy winter bee larvae to develop, and hence adult winter bees to be produced. There’s a great summary of the situation on the excellent “The Apiarist” blog. Or watch this – “Hard Working Bees Need Pollen!” by Heather Mattila


This year, a couple of late-in-the-season garden visitors has meant me delaying the annual cut-back, as well as continuing to dead-head the late season pollen stalwarts in the garden – particularly Dahlia merckii, and Anemone japonica – and this is a benign job I may repeat in future years, with my increasing awareness of how critical this is for honey bee nutrition as winter approaches.

( A quite rare, in our hives, non-black honey bee, above)

One of my primary motivations in encouraging more insects into the garden apart from the real interest in having them around, has been their key role in attracting in other wildlife, and of course, the potential for better pollination and viable seed formation in many of our garden plants. For a garden like ours, set up and maintained along more naturalistic lines, this is a key factor in allowing plant diversity and enabling natural self-replacement.

Over the years a few different seedling plants have popped up, been nurtured by me, valued, and it’s been a thrill this year to pass 3 of them on to two wonderful nurserymen, Richard Bramley, and Bob Brown to propagate and in time, perhaps, make available to a wider gardening audience.

Names were needed, and one, our excellent disease free, vigorous rambling rose R. ‘White Dragon’ has certainly been featured in the blog before.

It’s probably a seedling of R. ‘Kiftsgate’, but flowers earlier, is much healthier, and even more vigorous, with a wonderful purple tinge to the South facing aspects of new shoots.

The other two are Buddleja seedlings. The first, above, which I’ve called B. ‘Bee Balm Beauty,’ is a fantastically floriferous B. davidii hybrid, with very long, scented pannicles, which will grow enormous if allowed to, and has the greatest honey bee appeal of any of our Buddlejas. But bumblebees, butterflies, hoverflies and moths all visit it in profusion. And it flowers continuously, even without dead-heading, well into November, or the first frosts.

It was only after chatting about it with Bob, that he made the point that since it flowered for so long, and was sterile itself (a big advantage if you’re worried about the invasive potential of Buddleja), it was probably a hybrid of B. davidii and B. globosa. Interestingly although we had a B. globosa in this part of the garden originally, it died out early on – probably at least 15 years ago, and I don’t have a picture of it. So it must have taken years for the seed to actually germinate.

The final plant, I’ve called B. ‘Purple Punk’ – hopefully for obvious reasons. I’m still uncertain about how valuable it is as a nectar resource, but the visual impact is wonderful, both as the flowers emerge, and the way the stems arch over naturally with the weight of the flowers. And spot the resting moth in the image below of me holding just the terminal multi-branched pannicle.

Again it’s a sterile form, it seems, and I suspect it might have extra chromosome numbers to account for the flower form. If you look at the excellent images and lists of cultivars on the website of the National Collection of Buddlejas, you’ll see there are a few similar looking plants, of which ‘Dartmoor’ is perhaps the earliest one to be listed and named.

Finally, with all the turmoil, there’s a wonderful new series of videos linked to a recent release of piano music, “From Afar” selected and played by Víkingur Ólafsson

A great way to start the day.

Sit down, and enjoy a few moments of calm, in this mad, mad, world.


PS. In a dash to get this out before the news changed, I failed miserably.

By about half an hour.

The news is just out that Liz Truss resigned at 1.30 p.m.

Oh dear. Oh dear.