Arbor Day in Germany (Tag des Baumes)

Larch

Larix decidua

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For 2012 the Dr. Silvius Wodarz Foundation has chosen the European Larch, Larix Decidua, as Tree of the Year for Germany.

Larches are very graceful trees, and their fresh green in early spring and golden yellow in autumn add colour to our forests. The flowers in March/ April are beautiful… take a closer look if you have a larch near you. (Larch trees like to be admired!) The female flower is red, and upright, while the male flower is light green/yellow and hangs downwards. They are pollinated by the wind, since they flower so early, even at high altitudes.

The larch is the only indigenous conifer that loses its needles in winter, which is believed to be a kind of protective, energy-conserving measure against alpine winters with permafrost, or summer drought. It grows at heights of up to 2,000 metres and in the German Alps the larch serves as protection against avalanches. It is also cultivated for building material, as the wood is very hard and weatherproof.

Yet the needles look so soft and delicate!

 I often collect the cones in December, and use them as part of my Advent decorations. The cones remain on the branches for several years, opening only when the weather is mild and dry, releasing just a few seeds at a time, then closing again.

The larch has also been the subject of legend since time began. Forest fairies inhabit their trunks and branches, giving magic self-replenishing purses, bread and cheese to the poor! These fairies are also said to put lost hikers back on the right track!

In the Alps you will often see a larch standing near a mountain cabin or farmhouse… the “house tree”. It protects the dwelling from evil spirits and lightning.

What’s more, these trees can possibly live for up to a thousand years. So just think; if you plant one today, who may be admiring it in the year 3012? How many fairies will have lived in it? And how many of its seeds will have successfully germinated into new young larches? How many generations have watched it turn golden in the autumn? Or will it have been felled and used to build a beautiful house, a bridge, a boat, or even a tower…?

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By the way, the man who introduced our Arbor Day in 1989, Dr Silvius Wodarz, was active in the state forestry commission for over 50 years. He has been responsible for many changes in forestry management, and for increasing the awareness of both the forestry industry and the public regarding the environment and the threat to many tree species.

“We want to familiarise people with trees and create concern for this living heritage. We are planting trees in the hearts of people – young and old – in order to initiate a change in our way of thinking”.

Dr Silvius Wodarz

Black Thorn, White Blossom

The blackthorn is flowering – “spring stars” – with the promise of many sloes this autumn. Strange to think of autumn now, when the spring has only just begun. But that is the nature of things.

Prunus spinosa

In a Blackthorn Spring

Even if I knew
Icelandic names for snow,
or spoke a thousand
densities of white,
from Queen Ann’s lace

to campion to ice

or melted glacial crystals
on my tongue
to sweat new words

they would not paint
this blossom held to blue:
spring stars
hatched from rapier boughs,
the bitter sloes of winter.

by Lynne Wycherley


Book Review: The Golden Age of Flowers

The Golden Age of Flowers: Botanical Illustration in the Age of Discovery 1600-1800

By Celia Fisher

Today is also World Book and Copyright Day, so I felt a book review fitting.

The introduction to this book is extremely interesting. Within a few pages the author has helped me to finally put some of these famous names into perspective: Linnaeus, Clusius, Tradescant, Banks, to name but a few.  These plant hunters, collectors, botanists and merchants played a decisive role in what we see in our gardens today. Thanks to Celia Fisher, I now know that Clusius was around in the 16th century, and Linnaeus in the 18th!  Linnaeus was the man who brought order to plant names, and thus a man I wish to learn more about. Above all, I have become hungry for further information! Now I know what I want to research and read more about.

However, the main body of this book is a collection of over a hundred botanical drawings from the 17th and 18th centuries.

Here is an example:

These beautiful works of art are accompanied by a brief outline of where the plants originated and when/how they came to Europe. I was fascinated to find out who discovered what, and where. Who first cultivated the Geranium? When was the Phlox brought to Europe from America? Where did the Daffodil come from? For me it is important to comprehend how, for example, Nerines were believed to be Japanese, but were actually African, yet were called “Guernsey Lilies”!

I could read this book again and again and learn something new each time. (I have read the introduction three times and found myself making notes!) The text is not long and not wordy. And even if the reader is not attracted by the text, the drawings are amazing. If only I could draw!

This is, on the one hand, a beautiful “coffee table” book, for browsing occasionally. Or, on the other hand, if you are interested in botanical history, you could lose yourself in it… I did.

Green Pancakes?

Alliaria petiolata

I realize this plant is actually an invasive weed in North America, but I don’t mind it in my garden since it tastes great!

I’ve noticed/smelt it before, growing down in the woods by the river, but as a spindly upright plant with pointed leaves and white flowers. So when I saw this big healthy plant in the open sun, still in bud, flourishing on our old compost heap, I didn’t recognize it! The bushy young plant has heart-shaped leaves. But as it grows upwards and thins out the leaves become more pointed. The small white flowers appear in May, and can also be eaten.

We laughed at it possibly being edible, as it grows near our nettles. And then we rubbed the leaves…. mmm! We tried it…

… the flavour was first garlicky, then bitter, then very strong, and then peppery. I immediately looked it up, already suspecting what it was, and found a few recipes.

In German it is called “garlic weed” (Knoblauchsrauke), but in English it is known as Garlic Mustard. That explains the spiciness.  (Apparently it can also be called “Jack-in-the-bush”!) I imagine it tastes stronger as it grows, so I decided to try out this recipe while the leaves are still young and tender.

(For more information and photos of the flower, take a look here: Alliaria petiolata)

To celebrate Earth Day: Green Pancakes!

Green Pancakes
For two people, puree about 40g of the leaves (washed and shaken dry) with 100ml milk, a pinch of salt and two eggs. Mix in 85g self-raising flour and let stand for 30 minutes. Then fry in a pan just like pancakes and enjoy with salt and pepper or – even better – with a little grated cheese on top!

We are planning on trying a pesto next, or maybe some herb butter…

Rhubarb and Vanilla

Rhubarb and Vanilla

A match made in heaven!

The dreaded dessert as a child was rhubarb and custard! Somehow the velvety vanilla custard sauce made the rough tartness of the rhubarb even more pronounced! However, since then I have slowly come to enjoy the pleasure of its tartness, and if young sticks are used they are much sweeter. I found some nice young rhubarb on the market last weekend. (Mine is not quite ready yet). This cake is proof that vanilla most definitely is the right spice to use with rhubarb; but instead of eating cake with custard (although I know some people who do!) I have incorporated this lovely spice into the cake itself.

This recipe is adapted from Heidi Swanson’s buttermilk cake (see:101 cookbooks), which is great with apples, raspberries or strawberries too. (Probably with any fruit in fact!)

Rhubarb and Vanilla Cake

  • 2 cups tender rhubarb, cut into 1cm long pieces
  • 1 1/2 cups (275g) self-raising flour
  • 1 cup wholemeal flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 cup (60g) brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup vanilla sugar
  • 1 vanilla pod
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup (220ml) buttermilk
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup (55g) butter, melted and cooled
  • about 3 tablespoons brown/vanilla sugar for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 190°C. Grease and flour a 12-inch square baking tin.

Combine the flour, baking powder, brown and vanilla sugars and salt in a large bowl. Split the vanilla pod and press out all the seeds into the flour mixture. Mix with finger tips into flour until well-dispersed. In a separate bowl whisk together the eggs, vanilla extract and the buttermilk. Whisk in the melted butter. Pour the buttermilk mixture over the flour mixture and stir until barely combined – try not to over mix. Now fold in the rhubarb.

Spoon into the prepared pan and sprinkle with most of 3tbsps sugar. Bake for about 20-25 minutes or until cake is just set and a touch golden on top. To give the cake some crunch, at the end of baking sprinkle remaining sugar on top and put under a hot grill for 2 minutes. But be careful… it browns very quickly!

Leave to cool completely on a rack, and then serve with whipped cream. (I only had clotted cream, and it went perfectly!)

Enjoy!