A Sting in the Tail

This year is proving to be one of extremes. Weather wise, first it was snow, then late frosts, then rain, more recently drought and scorching temperatures. And it also seemed to be a similar situation with wildlife. The tree blossom and wild flowers have been amazing with every month some new blooms outrivalling those of the previous month’s.

Now it seems July is to be the month of wasps. There are hundreds in the garden, indeed probably thousands, and they are everywhere. And if that isn’t bad enough, the very hot weather we’ve been having seems to have made them far more aggressive. Normally they do not prove to be troublesome until the fruit ripens in late summer, this year it’s different. And I’ve already been stung once this week which is very bad news for me – I suffer from a severe reaction, although never yet been hospitalised, fortunately. I keep my drugs and sprays with me – and a mobile phone, in case help is needed – and also keep my fingers tightly crossed. This, like the recent advice from a doctor to stay indoors, is not too much help for someone who earns their living by gardening.
Fifteen wasp nests in four days has surely got to be a record and so I have been keeping the pest control man busy. It’s a pity to destroy them but better I get them first than the other way round! I remind myself that during the spring they live on aphids and the like and are, therefore, valuable pest controllers themselves. Then I remind myself of the pain, discomfort and swelling, and sometimes injections I get, and they have to go.
I commended myself on my bravery, taking these photos, as the wasps went into the attack as the chemical jet entered their nest. But such is my devotion to get a new post out – I’m becoing a true blogger news hound!

. . .

My heightend awareness of wasps this week made me also notice these holes in a deserted timber garage. They were the homes of a small colony of wood wasps. Unlike the common wasp which live communally in their hundreds (the largest of our nests turned out to be the size of a football), wood wasps are more solitary, each one occupying their own chamber.

. .

They are quite placid compared to their aggressive cousins and, I believe, unable to sting a human being. The largest ones look terrifying but this species was small, about half the size of the common wasp. There are about 500 species of solitary wasp in Britain and I can’t identify any of them. I felt totally at ease photographing them inches away and they completely ignored me. Perhaps word had got round what I did to them further down the secret valley!

. ..

I’m now looking forward to the first frosts and a wasp free winter!

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There’s no Business like Sloe Blusiness…..

…..or should it be There’s no Blossom like Sloe Blossom?

This winter was long and cold and, by the standards of southern England, very snowy. Spring has not been much better with little in the way of warmth for, even on sunny days, there has been a chill wind blowing from the north or east. Frosts have been commonplace and are still occurring – our last one, a hard one, was only a couple of days ago: in recent years we have had our last frosts in early April. This was the view of the entrance to the secret valley not so very long ago.

Now, just a few weeks later – and despite the efforts of our friend Jack (Frost) – the secret valley has been transformed by the best blossom for many years. Whether any fruit will set is another matter altogether.

One of the first trees to bloom is the Sloe, Prunus spinosa. The second half of its Latin name gives a hint of its nasty thorns, as does its other common name, Blackthorn. These thorns break off as you touch the plant, entering the skin and festering readily. The old country folk talk of “Blackthorn Winters” as, when it blooms, the weather always turns very cold once again. This year the tree has been caught out: it is flowering five weeks later than normal and the weather has been cold all the time with no warmer spells to fool us into thinking summer has come.

The Sloe is one of those remarkable species which flowers on bare wood in such profusion it gives the plant the appearance of being snow covered (photos above and below).

However, country people hold it in affection not for its early blossom or for making impenetrable, stockproof hedges. They even have a reason to forgive it for all the painful splinters it inflicts upon them, year in, year out. And that reason is alcohol. For despite being incredibly bitter when picked, its blue-black fruits, the size of a marble and equally hard, give rise to that most delicious and sweetest of drinks, Sloe Gin. Traditionally, the drink of hip flasks to be passed around amongst friends on a frosty shooting or hunting day, it is a good drink at all times – which is why I have none left to show you here. I have had to make do with a picture ‘lifted’ from one of the commercial makers of Sloe Gin, for it really is a business venture for some .

Nothing beats home brewed and our recipe, made each year, is below. The Sloes are picked after the first frosts, which softens them and brings out their flavour, although a couple of days in the freezer works just as well. And if Sloes aren’t available where you are, don’t despair: damsons or plums would be just as potent. Cheers!

* Frosted or frozen, then thawed, sloes – weight not too important, probably about a pound.
* Place in a bottle/bowl and cover with gin (or vodka)
* Add a similar quantity of sugar
* Shake well every day until sugar has completely dissolved
* Top up with more gin (we add, at this stage, a quarter bottle of brandy as well – our secret weapon for making fellow imbibers ‘legless’. It also helps to give much needed courage when jumping a big hedge on Barney!
* Leave for several weeks, then strain and enjoy

PS. The fruit will now be sweet and full of alcohol – absolutely delicious eaten with vanilla ice cream.

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Cotswold Snow – an apology…

There have been a number of blogs written about the blizzards and deep snow both here in England and also in America. Not only have there been photos of snowy landscapes but also photos of cars and buildings virtually buried under a deep, white mantle.

I’ve had to rely on a ski trip photo for really deep snow

Mariapfarr, Austria – the nearest I’ve seen to a real gingerbread house!

Even in the Arizona desert, where there is none, they manage to put up the most amazing Christmas tree made from white sprayed tumbleweed – quite magical, it’s the best tree I’ve ever seen. Except I haven’t seen it being stuck in the barely snowy Cotswolds. Virtual travellers like me can visit it via one of my favourite blog writers, Noelle (an apt name, of course and Happy Birthday, which I assume must be about now), Christmas in the Desert.

Our snowfall – just a dusting despite the warnings of up to eight inches forecast

Despite all the weather warnings, we have only had a dusting of snow, an apology for the real thing – it stopped about 15 miles away. We have had ice and lots of it, especially black ice to make us skid off our little country lanes. But the secret valley has looked magical with some wonderful skies and it has made us all feel much more Christmassy. And although we haven’t had much snow, we have had everything else – sleet, freezing fog, freezing rain, bitter winds and a little sunshine.

A winter’s sunset and snow clouds over the secret valley
This morning was especially beautiful. The temperature overnight plunged exceptionally low to -8C or even lower, which for the south of England is cold: our winters tend to be a mix of cooler and warmer with average days rarely falling below -3C and rising to +6C. But as dawn broke, the fog came down and the sun tried hard (and eventually failed) to break through.

Fog, snow and a golden sunrise
When the weather is like it has been today, breaking ice on the horses water trough and refilling it with buckets from the house – for the hosepipes and outdoor water supply have frozen solid – isn’t so much of a chore. And seeing the horses tucking into their haylage and knowing that they are warm and their bellies are full means that we can lounge in front of the wood burning stove without feeling too guilty.

Why does he keep taking all these photos?”

For Christmas Day the winds are turning to the southwest where the influence of the warm waters of the Gulf Stream will bring in mild, grey weather. The cold snap that is already passing brought winds from the east, travelling across the European mainland from Russia, these are always bitter spells. And, if all things happen normally in the New Year, we shall receive the remains of the snow that has fallen across the Eastern Seaboard of the USA, for we seem to get the tail end of their extreme weather about six weeks later. Perhaps there will be a snowy Cotswold blog then.

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Of Holly , Ivy and Mistletoe

As it is the festive season it seems appropriate to look at the traditional greenery that we grow in our garden, or gather from the hedgerows, to decorate our homes at this time of year. And of all them it has to be the holly that offers so much as a garden plant.

The holly is one of those species (relatively few in number) that have separate male and female plants. To have a crop of berries like the ones above it is necessary to have both sexes growing within pollination distance and, of course, it is only the female that will carry berries. In our garden we have a magnificent specimen of England’s wild holly, Ilex aquifolium, but being male, is relatively boring (that isn’t meant to be as sexist as it reads!). It towers above roof height and doesn’t deserve the space it takes other than it provides us with shelter and a place to hang the bird feeders. How much better value it would be if it had been a variegated leaf sort. Fortunately there are lots of berried hollies growing wild in the secret valley for picking.

This holly is Argentea Marginata, a variegated form of our native holly and, being female, carries berries, making it very garden worthy. The occasional stem has pure white leaves. Ilex aquifolium grows naturally throughout the west and south of Europe, North Africa and west Asia. An oddity of holly common names is that many of the male plants have female names, and female plants male, so the variety Silver Queen, for example, is a non-berrying male. Very confusing!

I’m not a great fan of Ivy. There are lots of different leaf shapes and colours but, generally, I think they are rather dull, although, I do admit, they can be useful in dark, dry corners where little else will grow. This wild ivy, Hedera helix, above, growing on a corner of our Cotswold dry stone wall (and it will bring the wall down if we leave it on there much longer), has been transformed, on a cold winter’s morning, by frost which has given the upper leaves an icing sugar edging and highlighted the veins of the lower leaves.

Mistletoe – the plant of lover’s, or at least, of those trying to sneak a kiss from the unsuspecting. In England it grows wild, often on fruit trees in orchards or on poplars and always difficult to reach. Invisible for much of the year, once the tree’s leaves have fallen in the Autumn, there it is hanging in great bunches high, high up.

It is rare to find a plant growing as low as in the photo above and it gives a great opportunity to see how it attaches to the host plant. There are no visible roots: the stems of the mistletoe just grow from the trunk like young branches, easily identified by their dull green (as against brown) bark. Does mistletoe, Viscum album, ever kill the host tree? I have never seen this but I have seen quite sizeable boughs torn off a tree by the weight of the mistletoe bunches and, one assumes, the mistletoe must sap the strength of them. But then, mistletoe does carry green leaves so must produce a certain amount of its own food. Any idea, anyone?

For those not familiar with the tradition, it is custom to hang Mistleoe in the hallway at Christmas and to kiss those that stand beneath it.

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About Frost Free Flowers and a Bomb Plot…

I know the mind plays tricks as you get older but when I was a small child Bonfire Night was always bitterly cold and frosty. Afterwards, it would turn milder and wet – my father told us it was because the bangs from the fireworks frightened the clouds and made them cry.

a frosty morning in the secret valley

Whether it really is due to global warming or just chance, (probably a bit of both), but this year has been milder than ever. We have had a couple of slight frosts but not enough to do much damage other than to the really tender plants such as dahlias. This post is really more of a photo shoot of plants that ought to have been long finished. In between, for the benefit of overseas visitors, I will explain about the tradition behind Bonfire Night.

fuchsia megallanica

“Remember, remember the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason and plot” starts the old rhyme that children learn, recalling the day in 1605 when a group of men tried to assasinate King James I by blowing up the Houses of Parliament. The main conspirators were Robert Catesby and Guy Fawkes and it is the latter that is remembered because he was the one that got caught.

allium triquetrum – don’t they realise it isn’t Spring?

The burning of the guy, as the effigy of Guy Fawkes is traditionally known, represents the death of Fawkes and right up to the recent past (trick or treat seems to have taken over) children would take their guys, which they made, from house to house asking for ‘a penny for the guy’.

a stunted but proud Foxglove

The bonfire is always accomanied with a firework display, these days usually organised affairs by charities or village committees. What happened to the real Guy (which is where the modern day name for any man originates)? He was tortured and taken to the gallows to be hung, drawn and quatered – the baying crowd were cheated of this spectacle as he jumped to his death before the noose was placed around his neck.

a tender Salvia – not sure which one – any thoughts, please?

As for Catesby, he and the other conspirators escaped, but were found three days later and shot.

this surely has to be the last butterfly of summer?

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