Mast Year 2018

I mentioned in a post recently that we have a lot of pollen this spring. (Understatement of the year!) Well, I have since learned that not only has everything flowered at once due to our warm April – the warmest on record since 1881 in Germany – but it is also a so-called mast year for birches, spruce and firs in our region.

A mast year is basically a year when certain types of tree in a whole region produce much more pollen and thus far more seeds than in a normal year. Birches do this regularly – every second year – while other trees such as oak or spruce only do this every 4-8 years.

Our silver birches, swaying in the wind

Trees generally use their energy for putting on growth in non-mast years. But in a mast year something triggers them to put all their strength into preserving themselves and to produce as much seed (and hence pollen in spring) as possible. This can apparently be seen in the rings when a tree is cut, with intermittent rings of very little growth. The trigger may be a warm spring, drought or other factors such as the North Atlantic oscillation. In other words, climate change affects tree ‘behaviour’. But what fascinates me is that, for example, practically every Spruce tree in the whole of Germany has started pumping out the pollen, whether in the far north, the Alps, the Black Forest or the Bavarian Forest. Clever. 😉

Spruce, only just showing signs of fresh green

Just looking across our valley at the hillsides around us recently it suddenly became clear to me that the Spruce, Firs, and probably many other conifers have joined the birch this year – the trees are gold and brown instead of green, with little fresh growth and millions of flowers and cones forming on their branches. Perhaps you can see what I mean from this photo taken yesterday where the conifers are all much darker than the fresh deciduous trees in full leaf…

In fact, when I walked around the garden and took a closer look I could see our Norway Spruce, Douglas Fir, Silver Fir, Austrian Pine and other conifers I cannot identify are all going mad this spring!

Douglas Fir, with fresh shoots just beginning to show

One article I read quoted a botanist suggesting the conifers are suffering from several dry years in a row, and this is a self-preservation measure should they die. A grim thought. While looking for more information on this phenomena I found myself engulfed in the technical jargon of meteorologists and botanists. But it was interesting to find out just why we are experiencing so much pollen this spring!

Have you ever heard of mast years or experienced the same where you live?

Book Review: ‘Lab Girl’ by Hope Jahren

I have just finished reading this great book, recommended to me by Sheryl at Flowery Prose last November and immediately put on my Christmas wish list. You can read her review here, but I will add a few words too.

Hope Jahren is a scientist with a gift for writing, and the book flows right from the start. She recounts her life in an enchanting and extremely readable way, mixing in fascinating information and descriptions of trees, plants and her work. The story is full of ups and downs, telling candidly, passionately, and often hilariously of her (sometimes unconventional) struggles to set up labs, her discoveries, her dedication to her research, and the dear friend Bill who accompanied her through it all. Her style of writing is fluid and amusing, but also incredibly poignant when we note the hidden comparisons between the lives of trees and those of humans.

I really loved this book and wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone with a vague interest in trees, botany or science in general who wants a good weekend read.

Take a look at Sheryl’s review – she can say it so much better than I can!

😀

 

In a Vase on Monday: What’s in a Name?

As Juliet so famously declared in Shakespeare’s well-known play:

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet…”

Yes, we all (well, most of us) call our Amaryllis by the wrong name. Strictly speaking the bulbs we in cooler climates grow indoors in winter are Hippeastrums; the South American lily. And not Amaryllis, which is the African belladonna lily.

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Hippeastrum hybrid “dunkelrot”

But I don’t think we should care too much about this error. As Celia Fisher writes in ‘The Golden Age of Flowers’,

‘When European hybrids were developed the original confusion about provenance intensified, while ordinary plant lovers blithely regard them all as amaryllis.’

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Monday 11am, -9°C

I consider myself an ‘ordinary plant lover’. How about you?

😉

Thank you to Cathy at Rambling in the Garden for hosting this lovely meme. Why not visit her to see what others are finding for their Monday vases/flower arrangements this week.

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Germany’s ‘Flower of the Year’ 2017: the Field Poppy

Each autumn the Loki Schmidt Foundation in Germany announces the flower they have chosen as ‘Flower of the Year’. I was pleased to hear that for 2017 it will be Papaver rhoeas, the Common Poppy, or Field Poppy as I know it.

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We are fortunate to see it growing wild in corn fields and around the edges of agricultural land near us. But in some regions it has all but died out. The intense use of fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides, along with other modern technology in farming methods, mean the conditions no longer exist in which this wild flower can colour our fields and roadsides.

A couple of years ago this was the view just beyond our garden gate.

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Not just poppies, but sweet peas, chamomile and cornflowers were mixed in with the crop.

And this summer several farmers started sowing strips of wild flowers along the edges of their crop fields to encourage wild bees and other pollinators, insects and wildlife. This is subsidized by the EU – I only wish they would offer subsidies for NOT deep plowing, fertilising, and spraying chemicals or slurry on the land year in year out!

The idea of this Flower of the Year campaign, called ‘Blume des Jahres’ in German, is to draw attention to the plight of certain flowers which are slowly becoming endangered in our countryside. I hope it helps with awareness, as it would be tragic to lose more of our beautiful wild flowers.

Which wild flower would you miss most of all? The poppy perhaps?

Reading the Signs: Verbascum thapsus

This summer was extremely hot and dry, and I found myself scouring various weather forecasts in my hope for a few drops of rain. Our weather forecasts are usually pretty accurate here, as we are quite far inland, and not directly near any mountain ranges. But long-term weather forecasting is trickier… unless you talk to Mr Sepp Haslinger, a pensioner from the south of Bavaria, who reads the signs of the Verbascum seedheads….

Verbascum

Native to Europe, commonly known in the UK as Great Mullein, Verbascum thapsus can grow to up to 2 metres tall. The flowerheads start setting seed at the base, while the tops continue to grow and flower. By examining the development of these seadheads and flowers from the base upwards, Sepp Haslinger predicts the weather for the coming winter.

Mr Sepp Haslinger: “The man who knows what the winter will be like”

Königskerzen, Wetterkerze, Vorhersage, Schnee, Winter

The Verbascum is commonly called “King’s Candle” in German (Königskerze), but another common name here in Bavaria is “Weather Candle” (Wetterkerze) as it has been used for predicting the weather for centuries. Loose infloresences apparently indicate snow-free periods, while particularly long specimens with many flowers can suggest winters with a lot of snow.

Over the past four years Mr Haslinger’s forecasts have been accurate, and local snow clearing services rely on him for deciding on whether to set on extra employees or how much salt and grit to order for spreading on roads. This year they are doubling their orders, as Mr Haslinger has predicted a “winter of the century” with more snow than we have seen in a long time… the first snowfall is “definitely in mid-October”, and “abundant”!

(I’m glad I have got most of my bulbs planted – I must tie up the Miscanthus next in preparation!)

Here he is, reading his Verbascum on the Catholic holiday – the Feast of Assumption – in early August – I’m afraid there is no translation as his dialect is rather hard to understand even for me, but do take a look to get the general idea how he does it!

The 73-year-old weather prophet, who jokingly admits he would have been burnt at the stake as a witch a few centuries ago, says that it will not only be a very snowy winter this year, but also a very long one, with snow sticking around until Easter 2016. There will be periods inbetween with less or no snow, but Advent will be white – good news for the Christmas markets and the hot mulled wine stands – although Sepp warns them to strengthen the rooves of their booths! The winter equinox and Christmas will probably be milder, but in the New Year it will turn cold and snowy once again. All in all it will be “a hard winter”.

(Not really what I wanted to hear, but we will see!)

😉

Have you heard of any unusual ways of predicting weather?

 

A Bavarian Violet?

This fabulous warm spell lasted all week, and two days ago the first violets were spotted at the bottom of the garden…

FirstViolets

I grow several different types of Violas in the garden beds, which mostly flower a little later. These are in the lawn and must be wild dog violets, Viola riviniana, as they don’t smell like Sweet Violets, Viola odorata.

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…or are they? They do look so much like sweet violets.

I had a look at various sites on the internet and found that apparently dog violets hybridise with another darker viola (Viola reichenbachiana), which results in the Viola bavarica. A Bavarian violet! How lovely!

They are all very similar (to my eye at least), but the Bavarian one has a pale violet-coloured spur, whereas V. riviniana has a white spur and V. reichenbachiana a dark violet one. I’d like to think I have a Bavarian violet in my garden, as it would be fitting, but on taking a closer look mine still resemble Viola odorata most of all.

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So why do they smell only very faintly? Any violet experts out there?!

Do you see wild violets near your home?

By the way, looking back at past spring photos I can say we are a full month ahead of last year, bloom-wise, if not more. And one or two weeks ahead of 2012 too!

😀

Book Review: The Knot, by Jane Borodale

“Knowledge should run freely between men and women, readily available to those who care to know…”

(Henry Lyte, in “The Knot”)

(Picture courtesy of Wikipedia)

Henry Lyte was  a British botanist, living in the 16th century. He became well known for his translation of Rembert Dodoens’ “Cruydeboeck” – a register of mainly herbs and medicinal plants which was translated by other famous botanists into French and Latin as well as other languages. Other botanists around this time were Carolus Clusius (who gave Gentiana clusii its name), John Gerard (Geradia), John Tradescant (Tradescantia), or Mathias de l’Obel (Lobelia).

This novel is a fictional account of his life with his family on the Somerset Levels in the west of England.

“The Knot”, by Jane Borodale

TheKnot

While raising a large family, managing an estate, fighting a lawsuit by his father’s second wife for possession of his ancestral home, and creating a garden, Henry Lyte is also busy translating a botanical masterwork into English – a long process involving hours of dedicated and meticulous concentration, that will be of monumental importance to those who, in Elizabethan England, are unable to pay a physician and need information on medicinal plants in the English language. Henry dreamed: “Imagine a world where good health is a universal possibility!”

As the story slowly unravels, with Henry’s second wife Frances taking trouble in settling in, and the loss of several children to illness, we sense a secret regarding the death of his first wife, Anys. The sense of anticipation lasts throughout the book, though not affecting the gentle pace of rural life and the methodical progress of his work. In fact the tranquility of the garden and the down-to-earth gardener who always seems to be present seem to emanate peace and harmony, counterbalancing the annoyance Henry feels about his wife’s lack of interest in his garden, and his step-mother’s claim to his home.

Henry loves his garden and plants above everything it seems… One evening his wife refuses to accompany him to view the madonna lilies, so he goes out alone:

“He bends his head and breathes deeply. If only more men would take the chance to drink in the smell of lilies in the night in June, he thinks. There can be nothing so delicious. Nothing that could make a man so contented. He feels dizzy with love and tenderness for his garden. Above him is the clicking of bats, and a pale moth looms and flutters near the grass. He tilts his face to the moon and closes his eyes to its whiteness, bathes in its unflinching gaze. The air is warm. He feels enveloped, cupped between the sky and the earth…”

The passing of seasons and the constant references to plants and herbs growing in the marshy surroundings or in his own garden drew me into the story. As did the disparity between Henry’s love of nature and mankind, and his unintentional negligence to the needs of his family. He can, however, give his seeds and beans his absolute attention. On inspecting them he sees:

“… they are all – he feels quite overwhelmed with the sheer mass of them – waiting… And the promise they contain. These things seem dead, and yet… A few drops of water, the enclosing dark earth with minerals, the warmth of sunlight; and each of these dessicated, mummified little bits of toughness will hydrate, fatten and burst into vivid miraculous sweet shoots, climbing, sinewing towards the light.”

This book is not a masterpiece, but a gentle and enjoyable read. I personally felt that the storyline was lacking, but the journey through Henry Lyte’s life is pleasurable and calming. Little drama, hardly suspense, but I am glad I read it and would recommend it to anyone interested in the earlier pioneering botanists. The age in which he lived was so much slower and life was harder. The connection to the earth had to be suppressed where prayer was considered the only connection necessary:

“He wonders whether there has been any rigorous scientific study of the effects of spring on nature and man, and even idly toys with the idea of making some notes towards this himself… not as a counter to the truth of God, of course, but rather as an observational study of what actually occurs.”

Henry Lyte, sadly, does not appear to have had any plants named after him. Had he sacrificed the peace of the countryside for London he may have had more success and renown, but he is depicted here as a lover of plants and the earth above all, who hated travelling to the city…

~~~

So, if your reading list is not too long already, here’s another book to add!

😀