Sunday, April 28, 2013

Medlars and Chinese quinces

The Head Gardener and I wandered around Eastwoodhill Arboretum one morning recently   while on holiday in Gisborne, delighting in the various coloured trees – mainly oaks at this stage, but also many other types of deciduous trees.  It was quite dangerous in places, because the pathways were strewn with thousands of acorns, and I kept imagining those with less steady footing falling over easily.  We had the obligatory map but were quite happy to just follow our noses, usually following Robert Frost’s dictate about the road less travelled.

We came across an area that seemed dedicated to edible plants of the more unusual kind, included a medlar, Mespilus germanica, in full fruit.  I have seen the fruit before, and have seen trees before, but have not seen a tree laden with fruit before.  It is an interesting subject, being a member of the vast rose family (as are many edible fruits) and seems to fit somewhere between the pear species (of which there were many at Eastwoodhill) and the hawthorn. 

It makes a small tree, growing about five metres high, with a similar spread, and looking not unlike an apple.  It also has the great habit of colouring up well in the autumn, usually taking on yellow and orange shades.  Before then, though, the fruit become ready for picking.  They are unusual-looking fruit – sort of like oversized rose hips in a way, brown and with a calyx on the crown.

This southern European fruit was once quite popular but has fallen from favour, probably because so many similar fruits, such as apples and pears are readily available, and you do not have to wait until the fruit is rotten to eat them.   The technical term is “bletting”, but it amounts to the same thing.  After two to three weeks in storage,  the fruit becomes soft, mushy brown, and is said to be both sweet and tasty, with a hint of spicy applesauce.  If you do not fancy eating rotten fruit, perhaps it would be better to make a jelly from the fruit – it is also said to be delicious.

Before we left for holiday I had someone come in to see me at work, holding what at first appeared to be a semi-ripe mango.  When they explained it was growing on a tree in their garden in Masterton I soon worked out it was not a tropical fruit of any kind, but was a little puzzled.  I cut the fruit open and could see lots of seed inside, and could discern very little scent– but there was just enough for me to realise what it was. 

What I was looking at was a fruit of an unusual deciduous shrub from China, fruit I had not seen for about twenty-five years.  It was from Pseudocydonia sinensis, another aromatic fruit tree from the rose family, and another that is basically inedible!

This is an attractive small tree – only about three meters tall – and is closely related to both the quince tree of Europe, and the ‘japonica’ of the garden – Chaenomeles species. In spring it has pale pink flowers, which are later followed by the ovoid fruit, about the size of a large pear.  They are green for a long time, then take on reddish hints before turning butter yellow as they ripen.  They have a wonderful aroma, and a bowlful of them will scent the whole house.

These fruit are very astringent and very hard, and no amount of bletting will make them edible (at least not in my estimation) but they do have a use – they make the most wonderful conserve, not unlike quince conserve but much more aromatic.  We had a specimen of this tree in our nursery, probably about fifty years old or even older.  It only fruited once for us but what it lacked in regularity it made up for with enthusiasm, being heavily laden.  A young student,  who was working for us on work experience, decided he wanted to use the fruit and took some home to make the conserve.  I’m not sure if he or his Mum made it, but it was superb – it went really well with stewed apples.

I think I’d prefer a jar of that to some freshly bletted medlars.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Feeling seedy

I have been following some interesting threads of discussion on the internet over the past few days, after receiving a number of invitations to sign a petition against the American chemical company Monsanto, probably best known as the inventor of Round Up.  The petitioners allege that Monsanto has gained patent rights on all vegetable varieties and will enforce a ban on gardeners and farmers saving their own seeds.
It has certainly vexed some people and there are some outraged people, posting all sorts of strange stories on-line. Needless to say the story is more interesting, and less alarming than that.  Monsanto has bought a number of seed companies over the past few years, including Seminis, a large supplier of commercial strains of vegetable seeds.  Monsanto does not have a monopoly on seeds, and only has any patent rights on vegetable seeds that were patented through Seminis.
So what are plant patents and how do they affect gardeners?
All of our vegetable varieties have been derived from wild species, usually by many generations of gardeners saving seeds from varieties which are an improvement over the wild kinds.  In that way beans and peas were cultivated for their sweetness and the increased size of the seeds, while carrots were changed from pale-rooted vegetables into the (usually) orange vegetable we are familiar with.  Perhaps the most remarkable series of changes has taken place within the Brassica group of vegetables, where one species has been, through patient selection, turned into kale, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels Sprouts, broccoli and collards. 
That process of careful selection meant that a century ago seed companies were able to offer their own strains of most vegetable types, and employed breeders and manual labour to ensure their varieties were true to type, and to also instigate new varieties.  This would be achieved by hand crossing two differing varieties, each with a particular point the breeder was interested in -  early cropping, better colour, larger size for example – then the resultant seedlings would then be reselected until the best traits were combined in a stable strain.  This was usually achieved by growing the vegetables in large numbers, keeping only the very best for seed and ruthlessly rouging out any plants that were not true to type. Then, and only then, would the strain be released onto the market.  This type of seed is pollinated by insects and is referred to as Open Pollinated, or OP.
But once it was released, any seed was fair game, and could quickly be bulked up and grown and sold by any competitor, thus denying the original breeder of the full fruits of their labour in developing the variety in the first place.
That all changed with the introduction of the Plant Variety Protection legislation in the United States, and later in other places, especially when that was extended to seed strains as well as cloned cultivars. 
In a local sense, this idea of being able to patent a plant variety came too late for Robinson’s Nurseries who bred the phenomenally popular Photinia ‘Red Robin’ in the 1940s.  Nowadays they would be able to license such a variety and would be able to secure a payment for every plant sold around the world, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.  Then they only had the introducer’s bonus, of being able to bulk to a sufficient number of plants before they were released onto the market.
In recent years plant breeders have concentrated on producing F1 hybrids, with interesting results for gardeners.  These are strains where two different parent strains are kept going, and crossed with each other, thus producing hybrid vigour, and much better uniformity.  This is a similar technique to that used by farmers for generations where they cross Romney ewers with Southdown rams to produce vigorous lambs.
The seed company only sell the seeds resulting from the first generation of crosses, thus the home gardener cannot replicate the strains, and is forced to buy seed fresh each year.  This is worthwhile for some varieties, but of less value for others, as F1 seed is usually exponentially dearer than OP seed.  I would never grow OP broccoli as F1 plants are much better, and the same applies to cauliflower, tomatoes and peppers.  On the other hand, OP lettuce and cabbage are generally fine – in fact, F1 hybrid cabbages tend to be too big for the home gardeners and older varieties, such as ‘Derby Day’; are probably a better bet.
Monsanto, and other chemical-producing firms have taken plant breeding a step further – a step too far many people - by using human genetic modification to breed plants with specific traits not found in nature, especially so in the case of Monsanto, which has released a Round Up resistant variety of soybean to the market, and has quickly captured the majority of the seed market.  They have also bred strains of maize and other crops that are also Round Up resistant.   They are remarkably popular as they allow farmers to sow seeds much closer as they can use Round Up as a post-emergence spray thus obviating the need for mechanical tillage between rows.
There is an inherent risk in this, of course, that being the possibility of the gene for Round Up resistance passing to a weed, this removing Round Up’s efficacy.  So far that does not seem to have happened.
The other area of concern for some is the issue of ‘terminator seeds’, varieties where the seed produced is sterile and cannot be used for a second generation.  This is obviously an issue for poorer farmers in less developed countries, and although it is claimed that such seed is produced, in fact it has not been commercially produced by any company. 
So, in short, Monsanto is not going to try and patent all vegetable varieties, and does could not if it wanted to, so you will still be able to grow ‘Great Lakes’ and ‘Webbs Wonderful’ lettuce,  ‘Moneymaker’ tomatoes and ‘Nante’ carrots without adding to the riches of the shareholders of Monsanto.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Couch in the border!

Through the last few months I have been watching a piece of couch grass make its way out of the back lawn and into the end of the large mixed border in our backyard.   It had made its way into the middle of a clump of variegated Solomon’s Seal before I noticed it, then it spread its runners out into a couple of clumps of lungwort.  I have been waiting for the soil to freshen up before tackling it, knowing that digging in the hard soil would only snap the runners.   I was probably the only person in the region who was happy to have a wet weekend, and to have the chance to deal to this pesty grass before it got too far out of control.
The first task was to carefully take the perennials growing in this area out.  I wasn’t unhappy about that as it was more than time to do that as some of the plants had been in large clumps for many years.
The variegated Solomon’s Seal had been nibbled away at last year, when I took some rhizomes off the edges of the plants as part of my contribution to the new border in Queen Elizabeth Park.  They are now well established down there, and part of a wonderfully refurbished border that is a credit to the Friends of the Park, and to Doug Bailey and his team.
Variegated  Solomon’s Seal, Polygonatum odoratum 'Variegatum', has great foliage value, having arching stems which carry lance shaped, green leaves with white margins but it also has delicate, creamy-white, fragrant, bell shaped flowers dangling from the stems in mid to late spring.   I love this plant in spring, when it is quite light green, as it makes a good contrast to the iris seedlings that grow alongside it.  It is a little bit of an expander – it spreads by finger sized rhizomes – but in all the years that it has been here it has only grown to about 60 cm across. 
The pure green form is just as good in the garden although it is a big more vigorous, growing perhaps a metre tall as opposed to the 80 cm the variegated form stays at.   Either form will grow well in full sun, but I think they are both best with light shade, and slightly moist soil.
Growing among these rhizomes in my garden, and slightly difficult to tell apart from the nodes on the couch, were a few clumps of the pink form of Lily of the Valley, Convallaria majalis ‘Rosea’.   The white form of the plant was a major favourite in my mother’s garden – she grew masses of it underneath the living room window in a very damp spot, and it always thrived.  I have a few measly plants of the white form struggling along in the garden, and an equally small number of buds of the pink form, also struggling.  I am sure my failure to grow these well is simply that I do not have a wet enough spot in our largely dry garden.
It is, of course, like a miniature version of Solomon’s Seal, with hanging bells of white (or a slightly muddy pink) pretty enough to look at in their own way, but mainly grown for their outstanding sweet scent.  For those of you who are royal fans, they featured in the Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding bouquet.
The two biggest clumps in this part of the garden were both lungworts, Pulmonaria.   These are outstanding foliage plants, doing especially well where conditions are a little less than ideal – in slightly shady areas, or those that are a little dry.  They derive both their common name and generic names from the supposed similarity between the leaves and the inside of lungs.  Personally I hope my lungs are not bristly haired and green – I cannot imagine that would be good for my health – but I accept that the name largely derives from the spotted nature of the leaves.  As a result of this look-alike perception, herbalists believed that the leaves were good for alleviating lung problems.  Science does not back this claim.
These are lovely garden plants, with some older forms having a mix of blue and pink flowers on the same plant, but modern forms tend to be coloured with one colour only, and the spots have been developed to become more dominant.  One of the clumps in the garden that I divided this weekend  is of the modern variety ‘Raspberry Splash’,  which has slightly more pointy leaves than average, all covered with lots of white spots.  The flowers are deep reddish pink, and carried in late spring mainly, although there will be sporadic flowers later.  This has made a sizable clump in my garden, and always looks tidy.
‘Majeste’ is the other variety I grow – and this is something special.  The flowers are pink and blue, but to be honest they are not the attraction for this one, it is the magnificent (or majestic) solid silver foliage, covered with fine hairs.  Again, this has been in the garden for a long time and always looks fantastic.  

Monday, April 01, 2013

Blooming good at Easter

Was there ever an Easter like this Easter?  One when the sun shone unremittingly throughout the whole weekend?  Although we are all hoping the drought will break soon, for a variety of reasons, most of us were secretly  happy that it did not happen through the long weekend.
The Head Gardener and I managed to a little time away to catch up with family, and spent some time on family history matters, but there was still a spare hour or three in the garden, with some lawn mowing and garden tidying carried out.
I loved working among some of my favourite plants that flower at this time of the year, but they are almost all plants the Head Gardener has no time for – at all. 
Take the wonderful paintbrush lily that is flowering its head off in a large container on the patio.  This was originally a gift from a gardening friend about twenty years ago, but it has still to arouse the enthusiasm of the Head Gardener.  It is one of the many South African members of the Amaryllis family, and like many of its relatives it flowers on naked stems before there is any sign of leaves.  But unlike its kin the naked ladies and the wonderful Crinum, this one has a short stem, about 15 cm long, and relatively squat flowers, with small petals. 
The species in flower at the moment is Haemanthus coccineus, probably the most common of these plants in New Zealand gardens, although none are really found that often.  It is totally summer deciduous (a pointer to its coming from winter rainfall areas of southern Africa) and the first signs of life in the autumn is a colouring at the lips of the large bulbs, which sit slightly above the surface of the soil.   These orange-scarlet buds slowly creep upwards, until they are about 15 cm high, when the tightly sealed lips of the lower open to reveal an astonishing ball of golden anthers, looking for all the world like a big red shaving brush.
The Head Gardener is even less impressed with the white species H. albiflos, which flowers later in the year, but I would not be without these charming and slightly oddball South African bulbs.
And I would not be without a toad lily or two either, although again, the Head Gardener is less than impressed with them too.
These are Tricyrtis species, members of the Lily family, generally from Eastern Asia, and they are perennial plants that grow naturally in the moist soil on the edge of forests, so they are ideally suited to semi-shaded places in our gardens.  I guess that it because they live in damp places they are called toad lilies - I cannot think of any other reason.  The flowers are certainly not toad-like, but rather like refined orchid flowers, usually with curious markings on the petals.
They flower at this time of the year when the garden can be a little barren of colour, and even though they are not extremely showy they are attractive perennials.  They are at their best in the same sort of conditions that hostas, hellebores and other moisture and shade loving plants thrive in. 
I grow a couple of different forms but T. hirta, one of the best, is probably the most commonly found species in New Zealand.  It has white flowers generously splashed with purple.  The leaves in this species are also attractive – clean, mid-green with ribs reminiscent of hosta leaves.