Garden Ghosts and An Interesting Plant

Taking over a garden is a curious business, initially you feel an intruder and hesitant to make changes.
In my case it is definitely an uneasy new relationship, where circumstances have thrown both parties together, not necessarily by choice.
For my part I have to persuade this neglected garden that my intentions are both honourable and benign.

For its part, I am hoping for some cooperation and surprises.
I am very aware that this garden has its own character, its own strengths and weaknesses and that hopefully we can combine our talents to create something lovely. There will be things to negotiate, some ground rules to establish and both compromises and discoveries to be made.

Ghosts and Discoveries

Currently I’m in the discovery phase. Although superficially there is not much in this garden, as I explore a little more, a distant history of love and care is becoming more evident.
I have found the old remains of a compost heap, its archeological layers revealing a thoughtful past. Digging has unearthed faded plant labels, and a few pale name sticks belonging to the ghosts of plants long gone plants: rue, carrots, santolina, and snow in summer.

There are piles of rocks, and pebbles which are from somewhere else, the leg of a plaster dog, a small concrete toadstool, 2 shiny spiral shells, and some odd pieces of Lego still glowing brilliantly in the earth.
Someone tried to improve this heavy soil with bags of sand, I found one buried behind the shed.

Wooden edging was carefully laid and a swelling  curve was made in one of the borders just to relieve the straight lines.

By the hardstanding is a boat tethering hook. I find all this a quite fascinating and quite touching.

The Cat Flap

But, most poignantly of all, clearing the undergrowth from around the shed revealed a, now rusted, cat flap. I wonder who it was, which Tiddles, Fluffy or High Priestess-Slayer-of-Mice snoozed away their sundrenched afternoons in there.

How many saucers of milk, how many fond strokings and caresses were administered and how many little animal offerings were laid in return at the kitchen door.
I think I will restore it to full working order… just as I will take a strip out of the wooden perimeter fence to allow small creatures both access and escape.  Who knows what little animal might need a refuge.

the hidden cat flap bg

Tiny sketchbook note.. pre shed-painting.

An Interesting (American) Plant

As I go I am trying to identify the plants which already grow in the garden. At  this time of year you have to take care, you really don’t know who or what is sleeping or where.
Already in the desolate wasteland of the front mud patch there are a few bluebells struggling up through the gravel and some daffodil leaves are emerging by the fence… hope!

And over by the fence there is a tall leggy shrub which still has a few leaves. Over the last few weeks I have driven myself mad trying to identify it. Then I stumbled upon it by accident is a Fremontodendron and a completely new plant to me. These are the leaves,  a small mallow shape but with a very rough pale underside, rather like sandpaper.

     fremontodendron leaves

and this is how it will flower…hopefully…  Fremontodenron ….the Flannel Bush

Photo Flannel bush ‘California Glory’ from the RHS website. Family Malvaceae

This showy shrub is originally from the Southwest USA and Northwest Mexico, but does appear to be a good UK shrub, for a sunny wall particularly. Mine does not have a wall to snuggle up to, only a low fence and a bit of hedge and I would not say it is particularly happy…
I am watching the poor thing being lashed by the rain and wind as I write, but it is a rather nice discovery and I am looking forward to those bright happy flowers.

Should we be feeling the lack of Florida sun (yes, we are) this will help cheer us up.  In fact if we are missing the USA there have been some odd comforting reminders here.
We bought the ugly bungalow from a (non gardening) American lady who left a few cleaning products, so when I opened the cupboards there were my old USA friends; Clorox, swiffers, some unidentifiable soaps and bleaching products, all with USA labels, she will have bought them from the local USA air base shop.
And now this USA tree… which I am certain she did not plant.

She will, I think, have been totally unaware of the presence of her compatriot over by the hedge.
Not only is this handsome plant from America, it is also named after an all American hero,  one “John Charles Frémont (January 21, 1813 – July 13, 1890), an American military officer, explorer, and the first candidate of the anti-slavery Republican Party for the office of President of the United States”

There is a fascinating and very enthusiastic website about him which has many accounts of his exploits.

“His enterprises are full of hardship and peril,
and the wildest romance.
To sleep under the open heaven,
and depend on one’s rifle for food,
is coming about as near the primitive state of the hunter
as a civilized man may well get;
and yet this life, in this case,
is adorned with the triumphs of science.”

…Walter Colton

It seems he was a complex man, but amongst other things was an extraordinary explorer and botanical collector. “In the course of his five explorations of the West, Frémont collected over 1,400 botanical specimens, many new to the taxonomy–163 new species or varieties, 19 new genera.”
Below is a surviving specimen sheet of Scutellaria antirrhinoides var. californica, Scullcap, collected on one of his hair raising trips to the West. One where many of his horses and his collected plants were lost.

Image and info again from the Longcamp site, see botany.

Fremontodendron Leaf

A small sketch of the leaf…which was beginning to curl by the time I got round to drawing it.

fremontodendron leaf bg

I am glad to have this plant growing opposite my studio window. I will be reminded of sunshine and friends, both animal and vegetable, back in the USA and of those extraordinary explorers of the 19th century who I find so fascinating and so inspirational.

Of Darwin, Humble Bees, Mice, Cats, Old Maids and the British Empire.

You would expect Darwin to have made some interesting observations about Bumble Bees, wouldn’t you?.. (called in his time “Humble bees.”)

Humble bees alone visit red clover, as other bees cannot reach the nectar. It has been suggested that moths may fertilise the clovers; but I doubt whether they could do so in the case of the red clover, from their weight not being sufficient to depress the wing petals. Hence we may infer as highly probable that, if the whole genus of humble-bees became extinct or very rare in England, the heartsease and red clover would become very rare, or wholly disappear. The number of humble-bees in any district depends in a great measure upon the number of field-mice, which destroy their combs and nests; and Colonel Newman, who has long attended to the habits of humble-bees, believes that “more than two-thirds of them are thus destroyed all over England.” Now the number of mice is largely dependent, as every one knows, on the number of cats; and Colonel Newman says, “Near villages and small towns I have found the nests of humble-bees more numerous than elsewhere, which I attribute to the number of cats that destroy the mice.” Hence it is quite credible that the presence of a feline animal in large numbers in a district might determine, through the intervention first of mice and then of bees, the frequency of certain flowers in that district!

from Chapter 3  “The Origin of Species”   Charles Darwin



Bee on Clover by Kaspri from

Thomas Henry Huxley another eminent English biologist, and others went on to expand this idea, pointing out that the success of the British Empire really depended on “Old Maids”.
Why? .. because  soldiers eat roast beef, the beef cattle eat red clover, red clover is pollinated by bumble bees which, in a round about way are protected by cats. The cats eat the mice who prey on the honey and Old Maids keep cats, therefore the continuation of the British Empire was really dependant on cat loving elderly ladies.

It’s a nice thought and nice enough for A D Hope to write a poem about it. In “Clover Honey” from “A Late Picking: Poems 1965-1975”, the narrator is concerned about the number of spinsters in the locality but a friend puts him right. Here is part of it..

“Yes, yes, poor things!” he said, You have a heart
That does you credit, my dear. But let me say
That the great chain of being has found a part
In Nature’s scheme even for them to play.

You mentioned cats, I think. Each keeps a cat?”
“Good God!” I said “they have them by the score!”
“Indeed? Of course, I’m not surprised at that;
But cats catch mice_ Well, it’s what cats are for.

Their mistresses at night will put them out
To hunt for field-mice_You begin to see
My drift, perhaps, since as you know, no doubt,
The field-mouse preys upon the bumble-bee.

These hirsute bees, and they alone contrive
To fertilize the dark-red clover blooms;
Although it is their smaller cousins who hive
The clover-honey that loads our Kentish combs.

So when we find_ what does the Bible say?_
A land flowing with milk and honey, we do
Not doubt, we naturalists, that there we may
Expect to find old maids a-plenty too.

The state of single blessedness, you see,
Is not without its talent: indeed, you might
Call spinsters partners of the honey bee
Bringer of life’s best gifts, sweetness and light.”

To read more go to Darwin Discussion pages here


More Sketches

I am now thinking about the pose.The size of a bumble bee is due in part to the length of its hair, the hard body the exoskeleton is much smaller. A wet bumble bee looks skinnier .. think wet bedraggled poodle.  One endearing fact I have discovered is that bee hair is called “pile” as in a carpet, so is a bee carpeted with hair?

sketch 1

A quick colour sketch to get more of a  feel for this bee.

hortorus bee sm

Leaf of the Day: Triumphant Nature, Ruins and some Plein Air painters.

There has been quite a lot of dominion over nature taking place here in the apartment complex this week. There has been much lopping and hacking, trimming and tidying , grinding and chipping. The tree tidiers, who are in constant work here, come in the shape of burly men, hydraulic lifts, an armoury of power saws and a chipping machine. The elegantly drooping palms have been trimmed to leave only a cheery top knot of leaves. Over enthusiastic shrubs have been chopped down and chipped and creepers stopped in their tracks. Phew… man has regained control of this unruly bit of Winter was a close shave.
Just keeping nature at bay here is a full time and noisy occupation. A particularly miserable job I think is the be in charge of the leaf blowing machine. In 90 degree temperatures it can be no fun to carry a heavy, noisy and hot machine on your back and trudge the streets chasing leaves. But it has to be done, we can’t have leaves choking up the drains, or creepers taking over pylons or tree roots splitting the pavements.

I recently saw some of the fascinating “Life after People” from the History Channel. It’s a film about what would happen if Man was to suddenly disappear. As you would imagine, it’s not long before nature begins to take over. Especially engaging is the fate of the skyscrapers which having eventually lost their glass become lattice of concrete engulfed by creepers and altitude loving plants. These new elevated ecosystems are full of birds and small rodents, ruled, of course by the great survivors, cats. Cats, who never really needing to come down from their high rise domains might, according to the particularly enthusiastic scientist, develop gliding techniques to get around, not unlike flying foxes. It’s a wonderful image.
National Geographic have a similar film”Aftermath, Population Zero”. You can go to the website for an interactive overview here. The films have mixed reviews but are worth a watch.

There is something that draws us to a ruin, isn’t there, something about those qualities of impermanence and transience, all closely associated with melancholy and much loved by the Romantics.
Fragments of past events and lives can induce a contemplative state of mind, contemplative of our insignificance perhaps. It all reminds me of the great atmospheric etchings of Giovanni Battista Piranesi

Temple of Hercules, at Cori 1769

Arch of Titus 1748,…there must be some cats in there somewhere..

or Caspar David Friedrich’s sombre paintings, like The Dreamer here.

I have to admit that I have thought some Florida landscapes can be like these. Just too artificially melancholy for my taste. A sunset painting of ancient moss draped trees with a solitary egret contemplating its reflection the black waters of a swamp does nothing much for me.

But today we did go and see a nice small exhibition at the City Hall Gallery Orlando. I quote from their publicity
“Far and Near Horizons” is an international art exhibit organized by two of the world’s foremost contemporary Landscape Painting groups – Landscape Artists International (LAI) and International Plein Air Painters (IPAP). IPAP members specialize in landscape paintings done entirely en plein air (outside), while LAI members paint landscapes in both plein air and studio settings. While the outlooks and temperaments are slightly different, the commonality of all the artists involved is a passion for painting nature’s landscape. It is a unique gathering of plein air and landscape artists using different painting mediums and representing five countries.”
Their concerns for the landscape mirror David Attenborough’s from yesterday’s post.
Michael Chesley Johnson, past Director;
Thankful for its inspiration, we are eager to see that it gets taken care of. And the best way to see that it gets taken care of is to put it on display for the entire world to see. Our hope is that our paintings will encourage others to become stewards of the land – just as we have become its promoters.”
There were not too many solitary egrets but some very accomplished and painterly works. To dispel any gloom that may have settled, here is a lovely bright pastel by Linda Richichi entitled Wetlands. This particular piece was not in the show but there were others, you can see more of her paintings here.

No time for a drawing’s Saturday…