Saturday, 17 August 2013

Aesculus problems and Arbutus unedo

Plastic Bags

Fruit of the strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) - inspiration for the Christmas bauble?
      The daftest, wide-spread public habit of the moment can be seen on almost any pleasant leafy walk: some 'responsible' dog owners have gone to the trouble of taking plastic bags on their daily stroll, collecting the dog's excreta in them, then flinging them into the hedgerow or nearby trees. For a moment you think Christmas has come early and the decorations are already up, until a closer look discloses the unbelievable truth.

      I can see how it happens that lazy people, or those who shudder at the thought of physical contact with dog poo, even through the medium of plastic, will be irresponsible and leave it where it lands. At least it eventually breaks down and goes back into the soil or gets spread out via the crevices of my shoe. However, to go to the trouble of doing the lifting, then preserving it for highly visible posterity, seems a symptom of insanity. My advice to these misguided individuals is to do something creative, like throwing it at a banker.

      The thought of this leads me to the first Christmas of my married life: my mother was coming for  dinner and my wife was desperate to make the right impression by cooking a meal to be remembered. All was going well. The house was in pristine condition, having been Hoovered and dusted, there was a pervasive aroma of roasting turkey, the Christmas tree twinkled with a tasteful set of lights and the home-made decorations put the finishing touches to the aura of festive cheer. We were sitting in the living-room enjoying a pre-dinner sherry (sherry was a lot more fashionable then - it was even an essential aperitif to a restaurant meal, where they would serve schooners of it) - and we were chatting amicably when there was a loud explosion from the direction of the kitchen and the fairy fell off the Christmas tree.

      Resisting the temptation to get under the table, which was the government's advice for surviving a nuclear attack in those days (they had overlooked the fact that our table came from M.F.I.), I crept into the kitchen, to find the oven tilted to one side and the door open. The inside was liberally coated with a white, flaking material which turned out, on closer inspection, to be bits of a turkey which had had its revenge.

      And this brings me back to the subject of plastic bags - this time containing the turkey's giblets. In subsequent years I was delegated to remove this bag, partly because of its explosive potential but also on the basis that my wife has a prurient streak which questions the propriety of putting ones hand up a turkey's bottom. My feeling on the subject is that, if the turkey has reached the stage of having its guts in a plastic bag, it's gone past worrying about any other alien invasion.

      Anyway, we put the fairy back and went on to enjoy a Christmas dinner of sprouts, stuffing, apple sauce, carrots, roast potatoes and corned beef. My wife had fulfilled her ambition to cook a meal to be remembered.
Conker tree flower looking like candles from a distance
      Talking about Christmas trees brings to mind the way we used to have candles on ours when I was a child, stuck in little holders that clamped onto the branches. Not that they were often lit, my mum was too aware of them causing events which made exploding turkeys pale into insignificance. However the conker tree could well have been the inspiration for this tradition, as its flowers, from a distance, are candle-like in appearance. Equally, the strawberry tree or even plane trees, with their globular fruits, could have suggested the idea of hanging decorative balls in the foliage.

      The scientific name for the conker tree is Aesculus hippocastanum. 'Hippo' is Latin for 'horse' and is used because the Turks used to use the seeds as medicine for horses. A beautiful tree, it is currently plagued by a number of problems, not least of which is the horse chestnut leaf mining moth (Cameraria ohridella). The caterpillar does what it says on the label: it mines between the upper and lower surfaces of the leaf, causing disfiguring brown spots. Similar symptoms are caused by Guignardia leaf blotch, a fungal disease. It's possible to tell the difference between the two by holding the leaf up to the light, when the moth caterpillar can be seen inside as circular brown patches. Unfortunately there isn't an easy cure for either problem, though the removal and burning of the fallen leaves gives a good chance of the Guignardia not overwintering and returning the following year.

Horse chestnut leaf miner
      As if these problems aren't enough, horse chestnut bleeding canker has become prevalent over recent years. Although the leaf miner and leaf blotch are not killers, extreme cases of the canker can lead to death. It shows itself as the bleeding of a brown substance on the trunk, which dries to a black deposit. The disease is not always fatal by any means, so if you have an infected tree simply leave it to its own devices and it may well return to normality.

      So, what with Dutch Elm Disease, oak dieback disease, ash dieback and various other pathogens, the future of our woodlands seems pretty shaky.

      If you're looking for someone to cheer you up, I'm your man.

      On the lighter side, the strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) is an evergreen which can ultimately reach about twenty five feet high. The fruits look a bit like strawberries and are edible only to anyone with masochistic tendencies, because they taste horrible. The species name unedo actually means 'I eat one - only', which should tell you something. The young tree tends to be densely clothed with leaves and flowers are produced late in the summer. We had one visible from my office in Wythenshawe Park and I was shocked late one September when I looked out to see that all the tiny, bell like flowers were strangely disfigured. On looking at it closely it became obvious that wasn't actually a problem, they were simply covered with more red admiral butterflies than I've seen in the rest of my life. I came to realise that this is a fairly common phenomena: in late summer few plants are flowering and the ones that do are a magnet to all the insects still on the wing. Look at ivy flowers, for example, another late flowerer, they become audible before you see them, usually alive with the buzzing of bees and other insects.

Red admiral butterflies on Buddleia

      As the strawberry tree ages, the foliage becomes thinner. This could be a disadvantage except for the fact that the bark which is slowly uncovered has a decorative value in its own right. For anyone with a largish garden, Arbutus, with its slowly evolving attraction, would be a good choice.

Strawberry tree bark at Bodnant Gardens


1 comment:

  1. I nominated you for the Liebster Award. Check it out here,