Sunday, December 21, 2008

So You Think You Know Your Christmas Plants - The 2008 Christmas Quiz

Three days to go, and just like every year I´ve still got everything to do for Christmas. So before I get too tied up with making the mince pies and wrapping the parcels, here´s this year´s Christmas quiz. You´ll find the answer at the bottom - no cheating please or Father Christmas won´t come ...

1. Two of the gifts brought by the wise men were Frankincense and myrrh, which come from trees of the genera Boswellia and Commiphora respectively. But what are they exactly?

a) a resin which oozes from the bark
b) an oilpaste made by pressing the berry-like fruits
c) a tincture made by soaking the leaves in alcohol

2. Ivy was traditionally hung over the entrance to the house at Christmas time because it was thought it would...

a) bring good luck in the coming year
b) frighten away goblins
c) protect from the plague

3. Something else you may have in the house this Christmas is Euphorbia pulcherrima. What is it?

a) mistletoe
b) holly
c) poinsettia

4. The most well-known Christmas tree in Britain is the one which goes up in Trafalgar Square in London each year. It´s a gift from the people of another European capital. Which one?

a) Oslo (Norway)
b) Stockholm (Sweden)
c) Helsinki (Finland)

5. How do you get your Christmas Cactus to bloom at Christmas?

a) Keep it in low humidity and stop watering around about the beginning of November.
b) Make sure it has 13 or more hours of continuous darkness per day starting around the beginning of October with temperatures between 50 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
c) Keep it on a windowsill and turn it three times a day to ensure it receives light on all sides.

6. Christmas pudding was traditionally called plum pudding. But why, when there are no plums in it?

a) In the 16th century plum was a generic term which referred to any type of dried fruit - including raisins, which are a basic ingredient of the dish.
b) In the 17th century, plum was used as an adjective meaning delicious.
c) In the 13th century it was actually called plumb pudding. Plumb comes from the Latin word for lead, and it was a reference to how your stomach felt after eating it...

To see how you did just scroll down. And if you weren´t around in 2007 or 2006 and want to check out the quizzes for those years too, just click on the links.

OK here are the answers : 1.a; 2.b; 3.c; 4.a; 5.b ; 6.a

What ? 6/6 ? You´re too good for me. I can see I´m going to have to make them more difficult next year.

But till then, have a lovely Christmas - and don´t bother looking for the plums in your plum pudding ...

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Gardeners' Bloom Day : Antirrhinums

It's Gardeners' Bloom Day again, and what have I got on the balcony? Bloomin' antirrhinums. Well, what else were you expecting in December?

I've written before about how, though usually considered as annuals, antirrhinums are actually perennials and will put up with a lot. This plant is about four years old by now, and has been snowed on regularly. The microclimate on the balcony protects it from long periods below freezing, but they're tougher than the gardening books sometimes make out. They're usually classed as "half-hardy", but in my experience it's nearer three-quarters.

What I didn't mention before though was the fact not only will it survive the winter, but you'll also get flowers. It's a bit like with winter flowering pansies - although their "real" flowering period is the spring, they'll also put out a few blooms around Christmas. Well, mine do anyway. Last year I thought it was just a freak occurrence, but now it's happening again with the same plant. It's got four or five flower spikes in bud at the moment.

OK, it's nothing compared to May. But at this time of year I reckon you have to be grateful for what you can get. So thank you little plant, and may you bloom on happily all through the cold months to come.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Well, the north wind did blow, and then we had snow ..

And when the north wind blows, we know about it. It sweeps down from Siberia, picks up the cold air of the Alps and then blasts down on us, usually bringing snow.

So we woke up on Wednesday morning to this, the second time this year.

It didn't last long - by mid morning it had turned to rain, and then it just teemed down for the rest of the week. A nuisance, but we escaped the problems that other areas have had. In the mountains people have been blocked in ski resorts because roads have been closed for fear of avalanches. Just outside Rome, 75,000 acres of farmland has been flooded while in the city
the Tiber was at record levels and very close to bursting its banks - click on the link for a photo.

It's not unknown for the Tiber to flood - one article I read estimates that it happens every 50-100 years. But it's ironic that it happened just as EU leaders were meeting in Brussels to discuss measures aimed at reducing climate change.

Was it a success? It depends who you read. Yes, in the sense that it retained the threatened 20/20/20 policy : countries still agree to a target of cutting CO2 emissions by 20% by 2020, to reaching 20% use of renewable energy, and to a 20% improvement in energy efficiency. No, because of the concessions made to some of the countries with the biggest pollution problems.

With the economic crisis biting hard, industry is clearly lobbying harder than ever to protect itself against any measures which are going to cost it money. Under the original plan, all power plants were going to have to start buying "carbon allowances" from 2013, thus encouraging energy saving and a turn to cleaner sources. But for many plants this has now been reduced to paying for only 30% of their allowances at the beginning, the 100% target not being reached until 2020.

This mostly affects the poorer countries from the ex-"eastern bloc", many of which are still heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Yet these are exactly the countries which are the worst polluters.

It wasn't only the poorer countries though. Germany pushed for and obtained concessions, while Italy was at one point threatening to use its veto and block the whole process, objecting to the idea that it should be "only" Europe which was acting, while new economies like China and India continued undermining any effects that the European initiatives might have. Yet if the EU can't even get its own countries to agree to change, it's not clear why they expect others should happily climb on board.

So we have the same targets as before - but much weaker mechanisms for achieving them. That seems like a contradiction in terms to me, rather than the great victory that the Italians were proclaiming. The only attempt I've found at explaining how it might still happen was the
BBC's cheery little comment that "CO2 emissions are likely to fall anyway if a prolonged recession brings significant plant closures". Erm ...

At the same time as the EU summit, there was a two-week a UN conference in Poznan in Poland - ironically, one of Europe's worst polluters. At first it seemed more positive. Al Gore was confident that the Obama government will have a far more active policy on preventing climate change than did the Bush government. Well, it certainly won't be less active, but apparently he's not going to think about it until at least the summer. Now, this certainly isn't something to be decided overnight - it's too important. but if you've known for a while that you might end up as president of the US, isn't it something that's important enough that you would already have thought about it? Especially when you know your predeccessor has already been dragging his feet for so long. Gore also pointed to the fact that some of the developing countries - like Brazil, Mexica and China - were coming on board, with pledges on restraining the rise in greenhouse gas emissions already in place.

But what has come out of both meetings is that the developing countries need money - money which the richer nations could provide but are often reluctant to do so. Some progress has been made - for example, Britain is providing £100m to help countries such as Indonesia reduce deforestation (see this article in The Independent). In addition, some funds have been provided to compensate poorer countries which have recently suffered from extreme weather conditions, such as flooding, for the impacts of climate change. But it's not enough - currently no more than $80m. And anyway, it's a different issue. It doesn't solve the problem.

Poznan is the half way stage in a two year process which will end with a conference in Copenhagen next year, and which is intended to be the "next Kyoto". Whether Poznan has been a positive step in this direction depends, again, on who you read. Hopefully, by then the States, unlike in Kyoto, will "on board". But will they be any more willing to go against the business lobby than Europe has been? And without strong commitment from the US and the EU, will the developing countries be interested?

Meanwhile, back to the weather. We had a short truce this morning. The torrential rain finally stopped - thank goodness as my son had a football match (US readers read "soccer") and would have been soaked as well as freezing to death. One is enough. But the forecast is for more heavy rain and snow, starting in the north and spreading south. I think we might just be heading for a white Christmas ...

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