Freeze-Froze-Frozen

One of the major inland waterways for freight carried across Germany, the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal, is currently closed to traffic…

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It has been below freezing point for several weeks now (apart from a couple of days around Christmas), at times reaching -17°C and frequently staying at around -9°C during the day. I have seen the canal freeze over once before, but it never freezes completely, being built into the bed of a slow-flowing river. Last Monday it was officially closed to traffic, as the locks froze up and no ice breakers could get through.

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The canal links up the North Sea (Rotterdam in the Netherlands) with the Black Sea, and millions of tonnes of heavy building materials, grain and coal are transported via this route on long deep barges each year. Passenger cruises also regularly use this route, the most popular trips being from Rotterdam or Nurenberg, down past us to the Danube, and then on to Vienna and even Budapest. This part of the canal near to us was the last section to be built, involving high costs to reduce the environmental impact and secure habitats for wildlife. The completed canal is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.

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Today it is a balmy +1°C, with +3°C  forecast by the weekend. Still cold at night though, so it will take a while before we see boats coming this way again. In the meantime it is pleasantly quiet…

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Have you seen local waterways freeze this winter?

Stay safe and warm everyone!

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?

Wild Flower of the Year 2016 (Germany)

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Every year the Loki Schmidt Foundation selects a wild flower to highlight as its “Wild Flower of the Year”. Loki Schmidt was a botanist and in her fortunate position as wife to one of our former Chancellors, Helmut Schmidt, (who sadly died just a few days ago) she was able to found this Hamburg-based charity. The Foundation promotes the maintaining of habitats for wildlife and works to protect endangered species through education. Amongst other projects, they have bought up small areas of land in the north of Germany where certain plants or animals are threatened.

For 2016 one of my favourite wild flowers (I do have many favourites!) has been chosen: the Cowslip, or Primula veris.

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In much of Germany this little flower is on the red list, as its preferred habitat – dry meadows on alkaline soil – is dwindling due to land development, agricultural use or the intensive use of fertilizers. In choosing this flower the Foundation also hopes to bring attention to the loss of such meadows and similar habitats. In the south of Germany we are more fortunate, and cowslips are still found in the wild fairly often, although not as frequently as I would like; coming across them down near our canal is like finding hidden treasure.

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Many years ago I remember being taken out by my mentor on a car ride in the south of Germany. I had no idea what the purpose of the trip was until we arrived and there they were – millions of cowslips filling a large meadow on a dry stony hillside. What a wonderful sight, and one I will possibly never see again.

Now I am cultivating a small area of our lawn where they have self-seeded…

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Each spring I wait eagerly to see them appear, and this area is not to be mown until they have safely spread their seeds again. This is where the strict farming regulations and nature reserve rules in our area assist in preserving wild flowers too – certain meadows should not be mown until June in order to ensure that some species recur naturally. I don’t think this is actually an enforcable law, as I do see farmers mowing too early sometimes, but I think subsidies must be an incentive for most to stick to the rules.

A Meadow in May

A Meadow in May

Primula veris is a sun-loving plant and in our climate usually flowers in April and May. It is a protected species, and may not be picked or dug up from the wild. However, a single plant can spread quickly into a bigger clump, seeding itself around profusely.

“Beneath the sun I dance and play

In April and in merry May”

(Cicely Mary Barker)

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The botanical name Primula means first and veris means spring. One of the common names in the German language is Himmelsschlüssel – meaning “heaven’s keys”; the legend goes that St Peter dropped his keys to the gates of heaven and the first cowslips grew up where the keys landed! I then looked up the English common names in Wikipedia –  a long list of them that I have never heard before, including herb peter, key flower, key of heaven, fairy cups, buckles, palsywort, plumrocks, and tittypines! Wikipedia claims that “In the Middle-Ages it was also known as St. Peter’s herb or Petrella and was very sought after by Florentine apothecaries.” In herbal medicine the extract of Primula veris is used in cold remedies to relieve coughs and bronchial symptoms.

Although it will be some time before we see the Cowslip flowering again here, a close relative has decided to flower for me in November…

Primula x pruhoniciana "Schneewittchen"

Primula x pruhoniciana “Schneewittchen”

Are you also having such a mild autumn?

What are “Stinzenpflanzen”?

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Wood Anemone (Anemone nemorosa)

Stinzenpflanzen one of those nice long German words – is a new word for me. I came across it in my gardening magazine this month and thought it worthy of a mention here. I have been unable to translate it, as it seems to be a local term only, but I’ll do my best to explain…

“Pflanzen” is German for plants. And in northern Germany and the Netherlands “Stinzen” is an old Frisian word for houses made of stone… from the 16th century on this meant grand houses, for the wealthy only – manors and castles, houses on large estates, monasteries or vicarages, etc. These houses frequently had gardens and parkland attached, and as a sign of wealth and standing the grounds were planted extravagantly with bulbs, tubers and plants grown from rhizomes which had been introduced from other more exotic parts of the world by the plant hunters of the age, or simply from different regions of Europe.

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Summer Snowflake (Leucojum aestivum)

Typical for this particular style of planting was spring flowering plants that naturalize, so in some areas of northern Germany the stone houses – “Stinzen” – have long gone, but areas of “Stinzenpflanzen” remain to remind us of the past.

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Corydalis cava

The term Stinzenpflanzen includes flowers such as:

Snowdrops, Winter Aconites, Glory of the Snow…

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Glory of the Snow (Chionodoxa)

… Spring and Summer Snowflakes, Scillas, Crocuses …

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Crocus tommasinianus

… Corydalis, Bluebells, Narcissi, the Snake’s Head Fritillary, Star-of-Bethlehem…

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Star of Bethlehem (Gagea lutea)

… Lily of the Valley, Arum Lilies and Wood Anemones…

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Yellow Wood Anemone (Anemone ranunculoides)

Do you grow any Stinzenpflanzen?

😉

What is Phenology?

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Pussy Willow, March 2015

Everyone knows the saying about March – “In like a lion, out like a lamb”. And then there’s the other saying which is very common here: “Christmas in clover, Easter in snow”…

These are some of the ancient proverbs passed down through generations, sometimes over hundreds of years, that show us the link between seasons and climate. They may have shifted slightly over the centuries, or have moved due to changes in our calendar (or indeed climate), and some may no longer ring true, but they can be as precise as any long-term weather forecast.

But what is Phenology?

“Phenology is the study of the times of recurring natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate.”

(Source: naturescalendar.org.uk)

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“Oak before ash, we shall have a splash

Ash before oak, we shall have a soak”

 ~~

Phenology is much more than a few proverbs or rhyming weather predictions; observing nature in the form of weather patterns or plant and animal behaviour provides surprisingly accurate information on when to sow, plant, transplant or even prune. According to phenological observations the flowering of the Forsythia for example is an indication that the ground has warmed up enough to plant peas.

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Another example of this is that potatoes can go in the ground as soon as the first dandelions have opened.

ScillaThe first pollen, the first flight of bees and butterflies, the emergence of leaves on the trees, or the first appearance of migratory birds can vary by weeks each year, and can thus give a far more precise insight into the conditions prevailing than the normal calendar. For vegetable growers the phenological calendar provides helpful insights – such as not to sow your beans until the lilac is in full bloom – but it is of interest to me for estimating when annuals can be sown or planted out, when the spring tidy-up is due, or if bulbs can still be planted in autumn.

Every gardener can benefit from closely observing nature and interpreting its signals – not only for better results, but simply for pleasure too. Watching out for butterflies and bees or the first snowdrop are things many of us do already.

A bit of history

In 8th century Japan the emperor’s experts in Kyoto began recording the beginning of the cherry blossom season; the flowering of the cherry was considered an important symbol of the reawakening, fragility and transience of all life and is today still celebrated with extravagant ceremonies and festivals.

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Shukkei-en Garden, Hiroshima, 1993

 

 

However, it was not until  the 18th century that a European began to take down similar records; Robert Marsham, a wealthy landowner from Norfolk, began to catalogue consistently first flowering dates (such as snowdrops), insect activity,  seasonal weather and temperature changes, tree foliation, crop growth, and the first sightings of butterflies and migrating birds. (His family continued this tradition until the mid 20th century.) In the meantime Carl von Linné, the Swedish botanist, had started a network in Sweden with 18 stations and a German institute in Mannheim began an international project. By the late 19th century Germany was  keeping consistent records with a researcher called Hermann Hoffmann calling for Europe-wide data to be brought together in one databank.

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The world wars in the first half of the 20th century ensured that phenology did not lose importance, since feeding the nation had become a matter of survival and any phenological guidelines considered helpful for growing crops were given priority. This trend continued after the war, when food was still scarce and agriculture was trying to catch up. But with the onset of new production methods and chemicals in agriculture the records were gradually phased out in the 1960s and were only revived in the 1990s when talk of global climate change emerged: Canada, the UK and the USA were some of the first states to revive their phenological observation networks at this time.

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Today phenological observations are not only of interest to agriculture however… the tourist industry is keen to be able to predict, for example, the famous cherry and apple blossom season in Hamburg, and hayfever sufferers can benefit from knowing when certain pollen is likely to be in the air.

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In Bavaria over 250 volunteers (1,200 nationwide) collect data for the German Meteorological Service (Deutscher Wetterdienst), which recognizes not just four seasons, but TEN, beginning with the production of the hazel flowers and ending with the dropping of the larch needles. I will post about each of these ten phenological seasons tomorrow, so I hope you’ll stop by to take a look.

Do you use old proverbs to help you in the garden?

Interesting links:

The USA National Phenology Network

ATTRA National Sustainable Agriculture Informaton Service (USA)

Nature’s Calendar (UK – Woodland Trust)

Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (UK)

 

The International Year of Soils

Did you know that 2015 has been designated International Year of Soils by the United Nations?

Logo of International Year of Soils 2015

I was a bit slow reacting to this, but then I finally got round to reading a few articles about it. And they got me thinking…

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“The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.
Franklin D. Roosevelt
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SOIL

DIRT        EARTH

MUD     MUCK

COMPOST

It is under our feet, maybe covered with concrete, gravel or tarmac, but it is everywhere and we rarely give it a thought. Okay, if you’re a gardener then you probably do think about it. You think about it being acid or alkaline, sandy or clay, stony, rich, poor, fertile, compact, organic and maybe a few more adjectives spring to mind. But on a grander scale what about soil erosion or desertification, contamination and pollution, soil degradation, increased salinity, soil management in developing countries…?

The aim of the IYS is to increase awareness and understanding of the importance of soil for food security and essential ecosystem functions

Raising awareness is only the first step. After all, we are all very aware of global climate change and yet our governments still refuse to sign this or that agreement, to invest more in renewable energy, or to reduce subsidies for blatantly environmentally-damaging products and processes. But it is an important step as, at the end of the day, it is down to individuals to bring about change.

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“The fate of the soil system depends on society’s willingness to intervene in the market place, and to forego some of the short-term benefits that accrue from ‘mining’ the soil so that soil quality and fertility can be maintained over the longer term.”

Eugene Odum (US biologist known for his pioneering work on ecosystem ecology)

~~

The next stage promoted by this awareness campaign is to educate people about how important soil is for our ecosystems as a whole and how it affects not only our health, but also our economic welfare; sustainable soil management is the practical form of this educational process and must be invested in – worldwide – with the support of government policies and protective legislation.

The EU – after many years of deliberation – still does not have a cohesive soil governance policy, relying only on environmental policies and legislation of member states. Do we need a single policy? Or should soil governance be a regional issue? After all, the effects of poor soil management can have global repercussions…

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One square metre of rich soil can harbour as many as 1,000,000,000 organisms, including nematodes, bacteria, slugs, insects etc

~

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In Germany I have only been able to find a few events taking place to celebrate the Year of Soils – mostly rather dry-sounding lectures in distant cities.  But I have found a few links to interesting sites. In particular this one: http://saveoursoils.com/en

Please take a look at it. There is a wealth of information here, with some great short videos and a list of things you can do to help;

Buy organic

Garden organically

Eat less meat

Compost

Look out for more information and pass it on!

(e.g. Write a blog post about it, however long or short, or simply add a couple of links to interesting articles or videos)

~~~

Did you know that earthworms can deposit up to 10 kilos per square metre per year of valuable worm droppings in the soil?

(Neither did I! 😉 )

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“We are able to breathe, drink, and eat in comfort because millions of organisms and hundreds of processes are operating to maintain a liveable environment, but we tend to take nature’s services for granted because we don’t pay money for most of them.”

Eugene Odum

Here are some other links. There really is so much information online, so this is just a selection of what I found recently:

Earthworm Society of Britain

Global Soil Week

Video “Support World Soil Day”

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification

The International Union of Soil Sciences

http://www.soilassociation.org/internationalyearofsoils

 So, have I got YOU thinking too now? I do hope so!

Germany’s “Flower of the Year” 2015

Photo Courtesy of Loki Schmidt Foundation - Flower of the year for 2015

Photo Courtesy of Loki Schmidt Foundation – Flower of the Year for 2015

Every year an endangered wild flower is chosen by the Loki Schmidt Foundation in Germany, with the aim of raising awareness to it and its habitat.

Some of my favourites have been chosen over the years; Hepatica nobilis in 2013, Cichorium intybus in 2009, Cardamine pratensis in 2006, Caltha palustris in 1999 and Pulsatilla vulgaris in 1996 – to name just a few.

This year the chosen flower is a close relative to one I have growing in my rockery, and is not only one of my favourites – the insects, bees and butterflies love it too.

Succisa pratensis

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Picture from Wikimedia Commons

The above photo from Wikimedia Commons is the Succisa pratensis, but all the following photos are of its close cousin Succisa inflexa, a cultivated version that is extremely happy in my well-drained soil despite supposedly being a moorland, heathland and riverbank plant. The pale blue to violet flowers of this perennial herb appear from July onwards and can still be seen in the south of Germany growing wild. But the in the north this plant has become very rare due to loss of habitat: drainage of damp meadowland for agricultural or building purposes along with the over-fertilisation of fields have led to its decline.

My Succisa inflexa ‘Frosted Pearls’ is very pale, almost white with an icy violet tinge…

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The common name, Devil’s-bit, actually refers to the roots that die off at the end and look as if they have been bitten off. Succisus is in fact latin for “bitten off below”. In the same family as Scabious, folklore claimed that the devil bit off the Succisa roots in his anger at them being used (apparently succesfully) for treating skin disorders.

I must admit I haven’t inspected the roots of mine, but will definitely take a look this year as they are spreading rapidly, just like Scabious, and some will have to be uprooted.

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Succisa flowers are an excellent source of nectar for bees and butterflies, and the plant is also a food source for some caterpillars…

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This is a Summer Map (Araschnia levana) butterfly, photographed in 2012…

Succisella and Butterfly

You can read more on the English Wikipedia page about the Flower of the Year Campaign here.

Seeds can be ordered here: jelitto.com

or here: beehappyplants.co.uk

And I also posted about this plant way back in August 2012, here.

Is there a wildflower in your region that is threatened? Which one would you choose as a “Flower of the Year” in your country to raise public awareness to it?