Sunday, May 27, 2007

Calendar Calendula

The flower on my calendar this month is calendula officinalis. It’s a plant I’ve never had much luck with – it germinates without problems, but however much I pinch out the growing tips, it seems to end up looking gawky, straggly and out of place in the container. My local garden centre manages to get them to be low-growing, bushy and compact, but I’ve never quite worked out how. Different varieties maybe, though otherwise they look the same. And then it seems to be very prone to attacks by powdery mildew – ironic as one of its uses is supposed to be as an anti-fungal agent.

According to the calendar it has been used medicinally since the time of the ancient Egyptians. It has anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties and can be used externally against a variety of skin complaints – acne, eczema, boils and abscesses, minor burns and other wounds, nappy rash and chapped hands or lips – and also against haemorrhoids, strains, bruises, varicose veins and what I think might be housemaid’s knee. But don’t quote me on that one as I’m making a wild guess at the translation.

The useful part of the plant are the flowerheads, which are gathered from June to September – best according to the calendar between 11 and 12 o’clock – and dried before use. They can be prepared in various ways, of which the two simplest are :
  • As a tea. Steep 1-2 teaspoonfuls of the dried petals in 150 ml of boiling water for 7 minutes, then strain. Apart from medicinal uses, this can also be used as a rinse to lighten hair and give it a golden tint.
  • Or you can soak nine flowerheads in milk for half an hour. You then strain off the liquid and use a cotton wool pad to dab it on to acne.

The best English account I’ve found on the web is at Plants for a Future, though as ever Purple Sage is also very good. These two also list other medicinal uses – against stomach ulcers, bad circulation and various other ailments. They also mention its use in cooking – the leaves can be used in salads, and the petals used as an alternative to saffron to colour soups, rice etc.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

On Medlars and Shakespeare

At the end of last October I posted about the medlar tree outside the balcony which was then in flower and full of swarms of bees - so the bees were certainly around before the winter, despite what I said in the post On Bees the other day. Anyway, the tree is now full of ripe fruit, much to the delight of the local birds who are doing their best to get to it before we do.

I've realised that the name medlar may have been misleading. It's actually a Japanese medlar, or loquat (Eriobotrya japonica), which is a different genus from what is normally meant by medlar (Mespilus) though both are from the same subfamily maloideae - which also includes fruits like apples and pears.

Loquats (nespole in Italian) are quite popular here - lots of people grow them and you can buy them in greengrocers and supermarkets. I've never seen them in Britain and maybe the climate's not suitable for the tree. But even the other type of medlar seems to have gone out of fashion in the UK. Till I came here I had only ever heard of it through Shakespeare's plays. I don't actually like the loquat fruit much, and it seems that Shakespeare didn't like the type of medlar he was familiar with either, as all the references are derogatory. His description of the fruit in As You Like It is just as true of the loquat as of other medlars - Touchstone has been reading some dreadful poetry written for Rosalind by Orlando and says ...

Touchstone : This is the very false gallop of verses: why do you infect yourself with them?
Rosalind : Peace! you dull fool: I found them on a tree.
Touchstone : Truly, the tree yields bad fruit.
Rosalind : I’ll graff it with you, and then I shall graff it with a medlar: then it will be the earliest fruit i’ the country; for you’ll be rotten ere you be half ripe, and that’s the right virtue of the medlar.

When they're not ripe, loquats are very sharp - but they then turn brown and rotten very quickly. So you tend to bite into them and find acid on one side and gunge on the other.

But the tree is beautiful, with broad glossy leaves which are light green when they're young and turn dark green as they get older. Ours is right outside the kitchen and I often stand on the balcony with a glass of wine in the evening while dinner is cooking, just looking at it.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Cacyreus marshalli ... and company

May is the month the pests come back, and I've already had my first run-in with red spider mite. I think I won, but it's only the first battle in a war which will go on till the autumn, so I'm now checking daily and spraying regularly as a preventative measure with a mixture of onion, garlic, cloves and cayenne pepper which I found on a site called Bonsai Garden.

Other pests are also rampant and my caterpillarium now has a large number of residents chomping away. Unfortunately, I haven't always been able to move them in on time. I was in Tuscany for a couple of days last week and came back to find one of my chrysanthemums in an extremely sorry state - half eaten by voracious green caterpillars, and the other half infested by blackfly.

But the most worrying thing this year is the enormous number of geranium bronze butterfly (cacyreus marshalli) caterpillars that I've found. This is a pest that is rare so far in the UK and one that you're supposed to report officially if you see it - you can see photos and get details on the site for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. But it transferred to southern Europe from Africa some years back, and in Italy is now well established. Not surprising, as it can go through 5 or 6 generations a year. It attacks pelargoniums, and though the mature caterpillars feed on the leaves and flowers and so are easy to spot and pick off, by then the damage has been done. There's an earlier stage where the newly hatched larvae bury into the stems and tunnel down through the plant, and that's what really does the damage. So there's no way of confining this one to the caterpillarium.

Acknowledgement :
Photo of the geranium bronze butterfly provided under Creative Commons Licence by zigari44 via flickr

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

What's blooming on the balcony?

It's Gardener's Bloom Day again, so here's what's blooming on the balcony this month.

Nasturtiums ...
Surfinia ....

Surfinia, antirrhinums, nasturtiums, pelargoniums .... and my neighbour's bouganvillea.

The bougainvillea is beautiful, but is a horrible colour clash with the salmon pink of the geraniums. When it first arrived I hoped against hope it was there only temporarily and would soon be moved further away. But no. I think I'm going to have to be the one who gives in and moves the containers around.

All in all it's very quiet this month, after the explosion of blooms in April. The stock and wallflowers are now well over, though they're still there as I'm waiting for the seed to ripen before I take them out, and the seeds that I planted in March/April are now at the bolshy adolescent phase - big enough to take up a lot of space but not yet ready to do anything useful. Coming on well are sunflowers, busy Lizzie, surfinias, marigolds, campanula, mirabilis jalapa and lobelia.

The real bloomers over the last few weeks have been the pelargoniums - red, white and salmon - the begonias - red and yellow - and the antirrhinums, which have been terribly well-behaved this year. With only two exceptions, the yellow ones came up yellow, the pink ones came up pink, and the white ones came up white. A bit boring really.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Mother's Day Surprise

Despite being here for over thirty years, I can never get used to the fact that Mother's Day is in May and not, as in the UK, in March. So it always creeps up on me as a surprise. This year the surprise arrived in the form of these osteospernum (Cape daisies).

I've never grown them before so I've had to look them up - haven't come up with much information, other than that they're perennial, like to be fed and will go on blooming all summer if dead-headed. They like a mild climate - minimum 2° - but I hope I'll be able get them through the winter on the balcony by positioning them close to the wall and covering them up. They also seem to be known as Dimorphoteca.

The two plants were actually produced by two different growers, and on the label of the yellow one, it says : Multiplication only allowed if licensed through GPL. At first I thought GPL would be the name of the company and that it was a new variety produced under trademark, but when I looked, it doesn't seem to be. Does anyone know what it stands for?

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Wildlife in the park

The final photo post about the park and then I'll get back to wittering about the balcony ...

Given that the park, though large, is on the outskirts of the city and surrounded by built-up areas, it has a fairly respectable amount of wildlife. In fact, till recently there was a stag living there. No-one is quite sure how he got there, and in the end they moved him to a more suitable habitat. A hot Sunday morning, when half Milan is there jogging, biking or walking their dogs or kids is not the best time to spot anything but my son turned into an aspiring David Attenborough, appropriated the camera and started stalking. Spot the heron ...

The park has quite a good rabbit colony, and we disturbed a few as we walked around, but they disappeared into the underground far too quickly to photograph or even see properly. We had more luck with the pond life. There were lots of frogs on the lily pads making a tremendous racket given their size, but they plopped into the water as soon as David Attenborough came into camera range. He had more luck with the moorhens ....

... and then spent ages creeping slowly up on this little group of turtles. He was getting really close when a group of people rushed up and sent them skittering into the water.

The turtles aren't indigenous but have been released by people who bought them as pets when they were tiny and then got fed up when they grew or when they wanted to go on holiday and released them. Great for the summer - I'm sure they'll have a whale of a time. But they can't survive the cold winters. This winter was so mild though this year that they may well have made it - there's certainly an enormous number of them in all the different ponds.

Given my recent post on bees I was keeping an eye open to see how many I could spot. Pitifully few. I think it was three in the whole morning, one of which was collecting pollen from this iris - he's in the middle flower. I clicked a second too late!

Friday, May 11, 2007

More Pictures from the Park

This is another flowering shrub which I saw while we were in the park, but can't name. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen or heard of it before. But the photo doesn't really do it justice. The flowers almost didn't seem attached to the tree - it was as if a huge pinky cloud was floating over it.

As I said in the last post, the nice thing about the park is not only its size, but also the variety of different areas it contains, and therefore the variety of different plantlife. Apart from areas where the grass is cut and the shrubs and trees are cultivated, there are also areas dedicated to agricultural use - cornfields and hay fields ....

and then there are woodland areas.

This fungus, which was growing on the stump of a tree in one of the woodland areas was the size of a dinner plate.

There are also various streams and ponds, with rushes, irises, water lilies and other acquatic plants.

All of these different habitats means there's also quite a lot of different wildlife - but that's for next time.

Monday, May 07, 2007

A morning in the park

My son and I spent yesterday morning in a large park on the outskirts of Milan. It's a park with a bit of everything - some areas are cultivated with flowering shrubs, there's woodland, agricultural land, lakes and ponds, areas for sport and so on. I went a bit beserk with my camera and came back with nearly sixty photos, so I thought that I'd post a couple every few days for a while.

The elder was in flower .....

and there was weigela everywhere ...

and this is one which I know I should be able to name, but can't. It's on the tip of my tongue ....

This one was new to me though. I loved its trailing blue flower spikes. Does anyone recognise it?

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