GROW YOUR OWN MISTLETOE

With Christmas almost upon us one of the most traditional of purchases along with the tree, goose or turkey will be sprigs and bunches of mistletoe. Placed carefully above a doorway where passing under it is unavoidable many of us will be subjected to the torture of being kissed by those we’d rather not and disappointed by those that we would have liked to have been but ignored.Mistletoe (5)   copyright.jpg

The tradition of kissing beneath mistletoe is very much a British one although it is rapidly gaining popularity (and why not?!) around the world. Our own mistletoe, Viscum album, (European Mistletoe) grows throughout much of Europe but is decidedly fickle as to its requirements. The majority of British mistletoe grows to the west of the Cotswolds, especially amongst cider orchards found in the counties of Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire. However, in other areas in the south, there are isolated populations where it can grow locally abundantly – the photos for this blog, for example, were taken in a garden in the Chiltern Hills. The further north, the rarer mistletoe is, being absent from much of northern England, Scotland, the Low Countries and Scandinavia.Mistletoe (2)   copyright.jpg

Mistletoe is a parasitic plant – or to be more accurate hemiparasitic – attaching itself to its host tree, most commonly cultivated apple or lime. Strangely, mistletoe rarely is found on the wild crab apple, perhaps due to its more congested growth. Likewise, it is rarely found in woodland where the density of trees probably reduces the amount of light and air circulation required. Although mistletoe, being green, carries out some photosynthesis this is limited and where it grows in abundance on one tree, it can weaken the host plant and reduce fruiting potential.

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European Mistletoe in flower

In the past, mistletoe has been very much associated with fertility and winter solstice rituals and its use as a decoration is still sometimes banned in churches. The Druids held the plant sacred, especially if it was found to be growing on oak (which it rarely does). Modern-day Druids now hold a festival each December at Tenbury Wells to celebrate the plant.Mistletoe (7)  copyright

 

Growing your own mistletoe is relatively easy for most of the difficulties commonly associated with germination are false. Ideally, fresh berries should be ‘sown’ in February. These can be gathered or purchased or you may prefer to store those from Christmas. If choosing the latter option, store them in a cool, light, airy place and rehydrate in a little water before use. Squeeze the seeds out of the berries and remove as much of the stickiness as possible; they will still attach easily to the bark. Choose young branches away from the trunk and fix to their underside. There is no need to nick the bark or cover the seeds although it is probably advisable to mark the branch in some way to identify it in the future. The seeds germinate quite quickly but it will be four years or more before any real growth is apparent.   Mistletoe (like holly) have separate male and female plants so it will be necessary to have several plants to ensure cross-fertilisation and berry production.

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European Mistletoe: anchor point (haustorium)

 

There are over 1500 different species of mistletoe growing throughout the world. In America the native mistletoe looks very different to our own – one of the reasons why, to British eyes, plastic mistletoe sold in the shops looks so unreal: it is modelled on the American species.

For a huge amount of fascinating information on folklore and medicinal use, advice on conservation and purchase of mistletoe seed do visit The Mistletoe Pages website where much of the above information has been gleaned.

For those interested in Druidry: The Mistletoe Foundation

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New Year in London

Perhaps it is because London will be hosting the Olympic Games later this year that the capital seemed rather quiet and devoid of people and traffic when I visited it at the beginning of the month.  Although it lacked its usual ‘buzz’ it did mean more comfortable walking and it was definitely easier to catch a taxi.  I imagine when the Games are in full swing you will not be able to move for people and public transport of any type will be crowded.

 We tend to follow the same plan when we visit; not because we want to play safe, it is just that we cannot bear to miss a morning coffee and an almond croissant at the Bluebird cafe.  A slow walk up the King’s Road with it’s exclusive shops and boutiques brings you to Sloane Square – just in time for lunch.  This time we found, to our dismay, that our usual dining spot had closed down so we tried the Botanist, almost opposite, instead.  It proved to be a good choice for the food was excellent, as was the service.  My biggest criticism of it is its name which, of course, with me being a ‘planty’ person had rather appealed.  The decor consisted mostly of pictures of insects so we now refer to it as The Entymologist instead. 

A taxi ride took us to the National Portrait Gallery.  One of our New Year resolutions is to take in a bit more culture as we are becoming rather reluctant to move out of the secret valley, generally preferring the peace and quiet of the rural life.   A trip to ‘the smoke’ from time to time is just what’s needed to stop us from becoming complete country bumpkins.  We hadn’t allowed enough time to look at the pictures in any depth –  we really need to visit when we are not being dictated by the thought of food.  A mental note has been made to visit again quite soon, that time bypassing the restaurants ….. Mmm, we’ll see.

When we came out of the gallery daylight was fading fast and London appeared to have renewed energy.  Somehow a city at night with all it’s lights seems a more exciting place.  I seemed far more aware of statues, theatres and red buses – I’d forgotten just how much I like cities!  I’ve never lived anywhere other than in the country and I’m not too sure how I would fare if I suddenly found myself in one permanently.  Not too well, I would think.

Another taxi ride took us to my favourite London store; favourite perhaps because it is another food place.  Forget Harrods, which I’m afraid I dislike intensely, give me Fortnum & Mason’s anytime. The Christmas windows and decor were still in place but even without those, F & M exudes quality from every pore – or do I mean from every chocolate? 

Who could possibly bite into these white chocolate bears, though?

The first thing I do when I enter the store isn’t to think of my stomach, surprisingly, as I am surrounded by goodies to eat.  I always go to the central circular staircase and lean over to look down which is dramatic, then descend down the old wooden staircase which is equally full of character.

A wander around the coffee and tea halls with their wonderful aromas is another must.

The store has a reputation for making some of the best hampers in England.  I was lucky enough once to be given one for a Christmas present and it was such an exciting treat unpacking it and seeing what all the tins and shiny wrappers contained.  I was rather taken with their picnic hampers but there would be no point in us having one: although we picnic rather a lot because of our outdoor life, they always end up big social events.  What starts off as a casual chat with a couple of friends snowballs and it is not unusual to find twenty or thirty arriving to enjoy the feasting.  Fortunately they usually bring food and drink with them too.  If we had a Fortnum’s picnic hamper it would have to be a quiet, small affair – just the sight of the baskets conjures up images of check tablecloths laid on the grass, eating in the shade of the willows down by our little winding river.

And what would a visit to Fortnum’s be without having one of their splendid traditional afternoon teas?  By the time I had forced down two scones with strawberry jam and Cornish clotted cream and cake, all washed down with a pot or two of Orange Pekoe tea it was time to think about returning home.

If we were lucky and didn’t get held up in traffic jams we would be back in the secret valley just in time for supper.  I think a belated New Year’s resolution ought to be excercise more and eat less …..

PS  Don’t forget you can find me on Facebook now and get regular updates from the secret valley

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Christmas 2011

Many thanks to all of you that have read and followed my blog during 2011.  Despite the dire weather predictions, the secret valley is having the mildest Christmas for years.  Instead of extreme cold and deep snow as forecast some weeks ago, the sun has been shining and the temperature has risen to +13C.  I’ve had to rely on a snowy photograph from last winter!

Wishing you all a very happy and peaceful Christmas
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Flowers at Christmas

I know that it isn’t technically Christmas yet for we still have a week to go.  Despite the last few days being cold and frosty – and very beautiful with bright sunshine and blue skies, I have been surprised at just how many flowers are still blooming away when it is almost the end of the year.
A combination of unseasonably mild weather for most of the time and, of equal importance, very little rain to knock the blooms about has resulted in all sorts of odd floral combinations.  Of course, I realised as soon as I started to write this post that I hadn’t bothered to carry my camera around with me so most of the flower photos have been taken at some other time.
Cowslips and primroses:  It’s not especially to see the occasional primrose in flower in the garden but I don’t ever remember seeing cowslips flowering in December in the wild before.  It will be a good few months before we see carpets of them like these but seeing the odd two or three reminds me that spring is not so very far away.  In the newspapers there have been reports of daffodils in flower too.

Forsythia:  Another spring bloomer and again just the odd flower rather than branches being smothered in flower.  Perhaps not so surprising, as flower arrangers would know – the tight buds that cluster along the bare stems will burst into flower early when brought into the warmth of a house in a similar way to the ‘sticky buds’ of the horse chestnut bursting into leaf indoors.  Here, forsythia has been trained as a tightly clipped shrub to screen an ugly garage wall, the warmth and protection of which also makes the flowers open a week or two before normal.

Ferns:  Some of the shabbier looking ferns had been cut dowm to ground level as part of the autumn tidy.  I hadn’t expected them to burst back into growth …..

Violets:  There have been a lot of violets out, both in the garden and in the hedgebanks of the secret valley.  Is it just coincidence that these out-of-season blooms have all been mauve with not a white flowered one in sight?

Daisy:  There have even been odd wild daisies flowering in the lawn (we have mowed twice this month too).  The Erigeron daisy that you see growing in profusion amongst the ruins of ancient Rome has been flowering in our garden as if it was still midsummer; it is smothered in blooms.

Geraniums:  The hardy herbaceous sort.  Like the ferns, they had been given the chop some time ago but are coming back into leaf and flower.  Some of the hardy salvias are doing the same thing.

Mallows:  I have seen hollyhocks still in flower on my travels around the Cotswolds.  They are majestic when they are grown well but my favourite of all is the musk-mallow, Malva moschata, which is a wild flower that is often brought into gardensl.  I grow both the pink and the white versions and they self sow happily in the borders without ever becoming a nuisance.  It wouldn’t matter, you couldn’t have too many!

Roses:  There are nearly always roses out on Christmas Day and we always exclaim how extraordinary a sight it is.  They are poor, wet, bedraggled specimens carefully left in place by even the hardest pruners as a reminder of warm summer days.  For the most part that is the case this year too.  What we don’t expect to find are bushes smothered in beautiful blooms still wafting scent but this is the case in one rose garden I attend.  I am uncertain as to the variety but there are three of these amongst forty other bushes – all shrub roses.  They really are a joy to see.

I can’t believe that this state of affairs will last much longer.  Surely the frost and rain, or even snow, will get them soon.  I plan to wait until New Year’s Day and go walking armed with camera, pen and paper and list all that I see.  I have intended to do this every year for as long as I can remember but if I manage it this time, I will report back.  And, as this will almost certainly be the first of 2012’s resolutions to be broken, perhaps you would do the same and send me the list.

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Christmas Greetings

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Christmas Greetings
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from the
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(very snowy)
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Secret Valley
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For the first time for very many years we have a white Christmas

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Thank you for your continued support and interest – keep the comments flowing, I’m always interested to hear your views!

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May you all have a very happy holiday

Johnson

Cotswold Hills, England

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The North Wind Doth Blow…..

The other day I recalled one of the nursery rhymes that my mother used to sing to me when I was a small child sitting on her lap. Goodness knows why, after so very many years, but no sooner had I done so than the words became true:
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“The north wind doth blow and we shall have snow and what will the robin do then, poor thing?”
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Well, the answer is puff up its feathers and stand close to the bird feeding table until it gets fed!

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It isn’t just the robin that demands food in these difficult conditions and there has been a constant stream of activity back and forth to the feeders. The tit family are always welcome – we get many different sorts here: blue, great, coal, willow and long-tailed.
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It is often stated that British birds are rather dull compared to the exotica of warmer climes. We do have our share of ‘little brown jobs’ that aren’t too easy to identify but what can be more spectacular than the Greater Spotted Woodpecker? With it’s red cap and rump and black and white markings, it is a beautiful looking bird. We also have its diminutive cousin, the Lesser Spotted, but these tend to stay out of the garden and feed amongst the willows by the river.
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The only other resident British woodpecker, the Green, never comes to the bird table or feeders but it does have a store of food available in the electricty pole by the house. Normally quite shy, most sightings of it are of it flying rapidly away in the typical undulating movement that is common to all of the woodpeckers – a useful identification aid. Country folk (I include myself here) always call the Green Woodpecker by its traditional name of Yaffle.
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Often cited as the commonest Brititsh bird, the Chaffinch is also another colourful bird. Or, at least, the male is. In the photos below the rich salmon pink breast feathers are clearly visible, as are the wing markings, common to both sexes and making the rather dull female easy to identify. Bramblings come to our bird table as well. A less common winter visitor, they are similar to the male Chaffinch; however, the colour is richer and carried by both the sexes.
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The Thrush family are also well represented: here a cock Blackbird waits for food. its yellow bill contrasting with its black plumage (the hens are chocolate brown but still have a yellowish bill). In many birds, the Magpie for example, black becomes iridescent green when seen in certain lights. The Blackbird is jet black and all the more handsome for it.
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Only coming into the garden to raid the shrubs of berries or fruit from trees, the winter visiting Redwings and Fieldfares (close relatives of the Blackbird) feed in large flocks throughout the secret valley. I managed to catch this photo of a Fieldfare eating our apples before it flew off.
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The sheep almost disappeared in the blizzard yesterday. Today the weather is calmer and this crow is taking advantage of searching for food in one of the ewe’s fleeces.
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The snow – which is very unusual around here before Christmas – looks to hang around for a while, with more forecast next week. I cannot remember the last time we had one but, perhaps, a white Christmas may be a reality rather than just a picture on a card. If so, I shall have to write a post quoting Bing Crosby…..

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Skiing in the Secret Valley

I never thought I would see the day when I was able to ski through the secret valley.

How I wish that the photo above was a possibility here. Well I don’t, to be completely truthful – I rather like having the secret valley to myself! This shot was taken many years ago in the Kandersteg area of Switzerland when I could ski reasonably well. It is typical of my luck to discover a sport I was good at but couldn’t practice easily in my own country!

But for a short time, at least, the ski trails start from my door. And suddenly the valley appears transformed. Perhaps it is due to the mesmeric sound of the skis swishing their way along but the scenery is seen in quite a different way. And the silence is more noticeable too – all is still and quiet apart from the tinkling of water and ice.

Until you reach the mill race where the water thunders down leaving mini icicles clinging all along the splashed and steep banks. It seems a far cry now from when, on hot days, we dam the water’s exit to raise its level, and swim in the torrent. A jacuzzi spectacular! Oddly enough, the water is warmest where the water crashes down upon you which is invigorating, to say the least.
Onwards to tranquility again and the split willow – my favourite tree in the secret valley and featured in an early post, Willows, which describes how they become these extraordinary shapes. The river is quieter again now and the semi-domesticated geese that belong to someone a mile further downstream take advantage of having survived yet another Christmas feast…..


Home exhausted, but more aware of my surroundings, I notice that even everyday items, such as our rather boring garden furniture, look more interesting when covered in snow. And we have icicles too – haven’t seen those in years!


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An Almost White Christmas and a Christmas Robin!

Whilst blizzards have been raging all around us on both sides of the Atlantic, our little bit of snow barely deserves mention ( Cotswold Snow – an apology … ). However, a white Christmas is a rare event in the secret valley so here is the scene that greeted us from our upstairs window on Christmas morning.

Well, it’s almost a white Christmas!

The bird most closely associated with Christmas and featuring on thousands of Christmas cards each year is the Robin. This little chap obligingly sat still on top of our dry stone wall for a photo shot. Although the cold weather has meant that the bird feeders have been especially busy, robins are always friendly and tame, getting under your feet looking for grubs as you dig the garden. Oddly enough, on the European mainland, they are shy, retiring woodland birds.

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Deddington Christmas Farmer’s Market

Deddington, lies to the east of the Cotswolds and is an old coaching town, although only the size of a large village by modern standards. The golden ironstone buildings have a solidity that makes them neither quaint or especially pretty, unlike our limestone ones. However, they do have real charm and character. And most important of all, they hold a regular farmer’s market, reputed to be one of the best in England.

In this week of climate change summits in Copenhagen, there is something rather special in buying produce that is grown locally. The beef for sale from this farm in Duns Tew has travelled less than five miles from village to market. Not only that, but it looks so much nicer than the racks of clinically presented supermarket meat. Why eat meat from, say, Argentina, when you can look at the cattle grazing in fields nearby?
Crowds throng the produce stalls – the queue for bread so long that neither the purchase of some home baking or a photograph was possible. A gap at the cheese stall meant that tastings and subsequent purchases were more easily made. And despite the pushing and jostling, being Christmas, the mood was relaxed and vibrant for a market is a place to meet and chat with old friends as well as make purchases.

The church, which dates from the 13th century, dominates the market place and is itself busy selling cups of tea and homemade cakes. But when the hustle and bustle gets all too much there are quiet alleyways that you can slip into, away from the crowds. One day, I shall have to return and explore Deddington further, for it is a fascinating place.

Star shaped almond biscuits from the ladies in the church, buffalo cheese from Somerset, beef from Duns Tew and eggs from another nearby farm made our purchases of the day. The bowl of satsumas were also locally produced – grown in a client’s orangery which we created earlier this year. The holidays are going to be a great time of good and local feasting….


Postscript: I am ashamed to say I ate all of the biscuits already, they were so delicious. I knew it was a mistake to try one.

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