Category Archives: Flora and Fauna

Homage to the Dandelion

The grass and fields and hedgerows around where I live are awash with dandelions –

– they resist any attempt to eradicate them, keep the pesticide industry going almost single-handed and seem to mock us as they pop up on our manicured lawns, flaunting their bright yellow petals.

The name ‘dandelion’ comes from the French ‘dent de lion’ or ‘lion’s tooth’ , used to describe the marked indentations along the edges of the leaves and the ragged appearance of the tips of the petals.

But why do we so begrudge their presence?

Every part of this plant can be used:

the roots can be ground and roasted to make a caffeine free beverage, although more palatable to my mind are dandelion and burdock (or dandelion wine for an extra kick!)  made from the petals. The leaves can be blanched or sauteed in a similar way to spinach and added to salads and soups; the dandelion is also used in herbal medicine for liver infections or as a diuretic. It is even used as a dye, although the resultant slightly muddy brown colour (called ‘caramel’ by the more charitable) is disappointing, given the original glorious yellow of the petals.

Its colour alone would persuade me to rebrand it! It’s a flower! Let’s cherish it! We love the colour yellow! All the best things in life are yellow! Gold! Saffron! Buttercups! Butter! Egg yolks! Sunshine! Submarines!

Think how many songs have the colour yellow in their titles – you should be able to think of at least TEN. This is one of my favourites

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ICkWjdQuK7Q

My dad was never a gardener. His idea of keeping the place tidy was to sally forth, scythe in hand, once the grass was knee high.  Dandelions thrived! And so did lots of other pretty things like these:

And so did dandelion clocks – the fascinating, spherical seed heads which appear after the flowers and use the wind (or excited little children ! – the hour is however many puffs it takes you to blow all the seeds off the ‘clock) to scatter those seeds to the four corners of the garden, producing masses more dandelions the next year! So Dad was nurturing a wild life garden long before our present  ‘crop’ (oh!dear!) of TV celebrity gardeners advocated them!

But the real reason they are there is for these little guys:

……….the army of pollinators, buzzing busily from bloom to bloom – they don’t care whether we think it’s a weed or a flower!

‘When it’s Spring again, I’ll bring again tulips from Amsterdam.’

When it’s Spring again I’ll bring again
Tulips from Amsterdam
With a heart that’s true I’ll give to you
Tulips from Amsterdam
I can’t wait until the day you fill
These eager arms of mine
Like the windmill keeps on turning
That’s how my heart keeps on yearning
For the day I know we can
Share these tulips from Amsterdam

Ah……  Max Bygraves knew the way to a woman’s heart!

Tulips…….they herald the spring time  like no other flower – with their beautiful forms and colours, unmistakeable bowl shaped petals and bright primary colours.

These days growers have developed so many varieties the choice is dizzying, and even the ‘not very horticulturally minded’ recognise a tulip! It has become a favourite in English gardens, parks and floral displays up and down the land. Of course, tulips are synonymous with Holland and horticulture there is big business:

A few wikifacts:

  • Holland has a 44% share of the worldwide trade in floricultural products, making it the dominant global supplier of flowers and flower products. Some 77% of all flower bulbs traded worldwide come from the Netherlands, the majority of which are tulips. 40% of the trade in 2015 was cut flowers and flower buds.
  • The sector is the number 1 exporter to the world for live trees, plants, bulbs, roots and cut flowers.
  • The sector is the number 3 exporter in nutritional horticulture products.
  • Of the approximately 1,800 new plant varieties that enter the European market each year, 65% originate in the Netherlands. In addition, Dutch breeders account for more than 35% of all applications for community plant variety rights.
  • The Dutch are one of the world’s largest exporter of seeds: the exports of seeds amounted to € 3.1 billion in 2014.
  • In 2014 the Netherlands was the world’s second largest exporter (in value) of fresh vegetables. The Netherlands exported vegetables with a market value of € 7 billion.

       

The Keukenhof gardens in the Netherlands are a paradise for tulip  lovers – as their website boasts: ‘Keukenhof, the best day out among the flowers! There are more than 7 million bulbs in bloom this spring, with a total of 800 varieties of tulips. A unique and unforgettable experience!

Besides the spacious 32 hectares of flowers you can enjoy the spectacular flower shows, surprising inspirational gardens, unique artwork and wonderful events. Do not miss the Tulpomania exhibition in the Juliana Pavilion.’

At Keukenhof they recognise the importance of engaging with the next generation. Their website states:

‘Keukenhof is also one big party for children. They will have a blast with the treasure hunt, petting farm, maze and the playground.’

Who can resist? Don’t forget your camera!

Istria – or Slovenia and Croatia to you and me.

I’ve just returned from a trip to the Istrian Peninsula – and learnt a lot!  The Peninsula looks like a triangular pennant suspended in the Adriatic just below Trieste.  A horizontal strip of land at the top of the triangle now forms part of Slovenia and the rest belongs to Croatia. Our visit included some of the towns along the West coast of Istria from  Portorož down to Pula, with its stunning amphitheatre,  at the southern tip of the triangle.

istriamap

So first  stop – Portorož (Port of Roses) This turned out to be an attractive strip of  hotels stretching in a ribbon along the seafront – no ‘beach’ as such, more pebbles and ladders straight down into the water – would bathers disappear without trace?  Well, no, the water only seemed to be waist deep in most places so perfectly safe, if a bit chilly!

Portorož has been established as a health spa since the late 19th century and boasts some fine architecture – one example of this is the Palace Hotel, built around 1912 in what was known then as the Austrian Riviera. It was extensively renovated around 2008 but retains its magnificent facade and is testimony to the popularity of the area as a health resort back in the day.  There is a real Art Deco vibe about the place and lots of magnificent black and white photographs on the hotel walls illustrate the grandeur of a bygone era, which inspired me to take some sepia photos on my walk along the sea front towards Piran.

Every hotel in Istria has a Wellness Centre, indeed Slovenians and Croatians place a lot of emphasis on healthy living. On our tour I struck lucky every time – my room was right next door to the Wellness Centre! This meant that, unlike other guests who had to make their way along endless hotel corridors and into and out of lifts dressed in their fluffy white hotel robes to get to these facilities, I only had to pop out of my room and round the corner and there it all was – the plunge pool, the sun terrace, the jacuzzi, the  salt water swimming pool and all the wondrous treatments on offer – like mud baths, Thai massage with myriad combinations of lovely infused oils, facials – etc!!

As a linguist I was also interested in trying to pick up some phrases in Slovenian and Croatian – and was encouraged by the fact that all the road signs were in Slovenian or Croatian first and then Italian, and sometimes German too.  As I speak Spanish, the hop over to Italian is not so far – but the next hop over to Slovenian proved more of a chasm – didn’t get much of a toe hold, although the girl welcoming us in to dinner tried to teach me a few things – ‘dobro jutro’ (good morning) ‘dobra večer’ (good evening) ‘volim te’ (I love you !! – that should come in handy!) ‘hvala ti’ (thank you)  ‘molim’ (please) ‘račun molim’ (the bill please) and on the hotel television I even caught an episode of Gardeners’ World with Monty Don dubbed in Croatian.  Even so, progress was slow!!

Back to being a tourist.

Piran is a small town at the top of the Istrian Peninsula. Its links with Italy through the salt trade are evident. On the walk into the town we came across some curious buildings which turned out to be disused salt warehouses, now being used as exhibition spaces and the like.  

Views out to sea from the city walls were beautiful and the town itself is very picturesque.

 

 

 

 

 

blog2

 

 

 

 

 

 

We were taken on a trip to the salt pans and a museum where we learnt how the salt panners lived and worked.

           

         

Our next trip was to Groznjan, which is inland. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t very good but we could still appreciate the beauty of the countryside and sample some delicious truffles and mistletoe brandy – not sure about the brandy! We also learned that Istria has several symbols – one is the goat, one is the dolphin and ……the other will come to me in a second!

 

The climate as you go further south turns more Mediterranean, with lots of vineyards and olive trees and for the first week of our holiday the weather was pleasantly warm – around 25º. But things changed dramatically en route to our second destination of Poreč – in fact, there was a terrific storm and when we got to the hotel they were busy mopping up – leaks had sprung everywhere – outside the main entrance a little man in waterproofs was standing knee deep in water, pumping out and inside they were juggling guests whose rooms had water running down the walls – mops and buckets everywhere!

Built along the lines of a giant Butlins holiday camp – I don’t think these hotels will stand the test of time – more ‘Lego’ in construction – definitely the cheap and cheerful end of the market.  This conglomeration was built around several lagoons just outside the town of Poreč, which, once the hordes of weekend visitors had died down, felt much more welcoming. As luck would have it, the storm (which was bad enough to make the national television news) had abated by the next day and we were able to see a  medieval fair which they had postponed – so ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ as they say.

Pula, in the far south of the peninsula, boasts a magnificent amphitheatre, with the usual gruesome history of gladiators and blood and gore. Nowadays, the arena is used as an open air concert venue, attracting the greats of the musical world such as Andrea Bocelli, Norah Jones, Tom Jones and José Carreras.  Personally, I found the Roman artifacts in the museum below the arena every bit as interesting as the arena itself.

We barely had time to see Pula and even in late September, towards the end of the holiday season it was very busy. The Venetian influence is evident in its buildings and I loved the little alley ways down to the water’s edge which seemed to drop straight into the sea. Definitely a place to go back to.

    

To Bee Or Not To Bee

I’m not a scientist or a botanist, or an ornithologist, come to that, but one thing is clear even to me, a casual, lay observer – there are far fewer birds and bees around – a walk around my garden or the fields and hedgerows near home tell me that.

Years ago I had a dilapidated old garage at the bottom of the garden with a sagging flat tarpaulin roof – not so good for the car, but it made an excellent bird bath and I could sit upstairs and watch the antics of all sorts of birds as they splashed around and preened to their hearts’ content.  Now the garage has a new roof,  but it still collects enough water to form a 5 star bird bath – only thing is ……. the bathers are always pigeons or magpies – either they’ve seen off everything else or there IS nothing else!

 

I don’t want to sound alarmist but I saw this post from Greenpeace on Facebook the other day and it really makes you think.

Changes in agriculture have meant that farmers now go in for larger fields and less variety of crops – we no longer see the beautiful patchwork quilt of small fields that typified the English countryside – it’s not economically viable, but tearing up the hedgerows and planting vast swathes of rape or wheat – or, as in this area, potatoes – has had a drastic effect on the little creatures whose habitat we’ve destroyed- dormice, voles, small birds. And it also turns out these changes are detrimental to the health of pollinators.

    

Of course, most decisions come down to money – it makes financial sense to work bigger fields which have been sprayed with pesticide and fertilizer to yield more per acre. We, the customers, should be happy because our food is more plentiful and costs less.

But most people have now realised that this is short sighted.  There is a hidden cost and it could prove very expensive in the long run and – worse still – irreversible. The wild animal population  dies out either through loss of habitat or toxins in pesticides. The bee population is no exception. There is also in the bee world a phenomenon called CCD – or Honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder. This is when the worker bees decide to just take off and leave the hive, never to return. No one single thing has been blamed for this phenomenon. No one is sure why they leave the queen in the nest, with enough food and some nurse bees to look after the other immature bees. It could be one of a number of things, for example,  disease, loss of forage, or habitat, adverse weather and/or intensive apiculture.

So ……..  what to do ?  Well, it turns out there’s a lot we can do, as individuals or organisations.  We aren’t all suddenly going to become bee keepers, but we can all build little oases into our gardens to give pollinators somewhere to thrive – little bee ‘hotels’ in a pile of wood, more areas left to grow wild, grass cut longer so that we don’t disturb nests, more flowering plants. Of course, if you do want to keep bees, either commercially, or just as a hobby so that you can collect some of that delicious honey to spread on your toast or sell at the local farmers’ market, there’s lots of advice from professional bodies like the Bee Farmers’  Association or the British Bee Keepers’ Association.

A bee’s physical appearance is a godsend for campaign organisers –  children love the stripy yellow and black jersey they wear, so designing a  logo for a ‘Save the Bee’ campaign which will engage children is ….well ……. child’s play!

bee2

Lots of initiatives have been launched by any number of agencies – DEFRA, the National Trust, the Forestry Commission, the Soil Association, the RHS, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, the Wildlife Trust, even Waitrose,  have all succeeded in galvanizing volunteers, businesses and the public at large to join forces and save our bees before it’s too late. We humans always seem to leave it till the ‘impending disaster’ stage to actually do something – but do something we must!

I know one thing: If I was a bee I would be tempted by any of these hedgerow jewels:

     

      

Ah, here’s one!

bee