Gymnastic bees, virgin fruit and the birds that ate spring

It’s the vernal equinox and out in the garden, the spring flowers are blooming.

It pleases me no end me to think that these little figlets are made up of hundreds of the most secretive of flowers, snuggled inside a hollow-ended stem.

As you can imagine, pollinating figs is an extreme sport.  It’s undertaken by the fig-wasp, which spends much of its 48 hours of life on a suicide mission for fig fertility.  The male wasps hatch, blind and wingless, gnaw their way to one of the as-yet-unborn females, mate with them (eww), chew them an escape tunnel (still not redeeming yourselves, guys) and then die without ever having experienced life outside their flowery prison.  The females emerge and flee, spreading pollen as they go, only to find and squeeze into a second syncope (the fig “fruit” to you and me) through a hole so tiny she rips her wings off in the process.  If she’s lucky she gets to lay her fertilised eggs amongst the miniscule flowers inside and promptly, you guessed it, dies.

It’s really quite a disturbing life-cycle.  It’s with some relief that I can say that my three fig trees – a White Adriatic, a White Genoa and a Brown Turkey – are, like most cultivated figs, sterile mutants.  That sounds bad, but it’s a walk in the park compared to the Gothic splatterfest of the caprifig’s lifecycle.

Figs are one of the very first plants to be cultivated by humans: they have been propagated by us since the Neolithic era, over eleven thousand years ago.  And the outcome of our long association with ficus carica is virgin birth.  Yep, that’s the meaning of parthenocarpy – the way that common cultivated figs produce fruit from female flowers unsullied by any male influence. Since their fruits are sterile, they rely on us to do the hard work of allowing them to reproduce. Bloody skivers.

Actually, humans are quite fond of producing such feckless fruits.  Bananas are a good example.  They’re sterile, thanks to their three sets of chromosones – just like those fast growing “triploid” Pacific Oysters I wrote about in my last post, reproducing thanks to genetically identical “daughters” and “granddaughters” that spring from the plant’s base.  Fig wasps and caprifigs have co-evolved – maybe in some weird cultural way, modern humans with their taste for large, fast growing and seedless fruit and our virgin orchards have done the same.

One way or another, people, myself included, seem to get a perverse kind of pleasure in frustrating plants’ attempts to have babies.

My broccoli, encircled by landcress that deals death to invading insects and safe inside the kids’ superannuated, net-enshrouded trampoline frame – has done really well this year.  Now the weather is warming up, however, it’s taking a real effort to thwart the reproductive desires of my brassicas.  Those tasty flower buds really really want to go the full distance and burst into bloom and it’s taking a serious commitment to broccoli-eating to cut them off at the pass.

I tried, but it’s too late for that for the rocket, the mizuna and the tatsoi – these spring flowers are in bloom, like it or not.

I’m happier about these vernal blooms: magnificently monochrome broad beans in all their line-print glory.

I was a bit worried about my broadies this year, incarcerated as they are beneath the chook dome, my first line of defence against the brush turkeys.  Would the pollinators be able to make it through the 1 cm square lattice of the dome’s aviary wire?  As I noodled around in the garden the other day I had my answer. A European bee hovered indecisively, making careful mental calculations or perhaps looking for a door handle.  Eventually, it seem to sigh and alighted briefly on a wire, adopting what can only be described as a pike position and plunging through for a perfect 10 entry.

It’s a bit early to say, but I think I can see a few tiny bean pods forming so I’m hoping that while I’ve been otherwise occupied we’ve been visited by other elite insect athletes up for the gymnastic challenge.

The local birds seem to be almost as ambivalent about the signs of spring as I am about my brassicas going to seed. The bowerbirds are doing their valiant best to rip all the buds off the liquidambar and the little wattlebirds have been paying excessive attention to the flowers on the chinese lantern.  They’re either defending them from insect attack or eating them – I’m not quite sure which.

I don’t think these red wattlebirds would be capable of doing any damage to the heavy duty flower of a gymea lily, even mob handed.  These monster blossoms are bird pollinated – the red colour scheme is a dead giveaway apparently.  I guess this is the honey eater equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet.  Since you can roast and eat the roots and the young flower spikes it could even be supersized bush tucker for us humans too.

Enjoy the equinox: may all your spring flowers be excellent eating!

Implausible vegetables

I don’t know if it’s spring or the big rains we had a while ago, but bamboo shoots from the neighbours’ giant hedge are popping up everywhere.  I say it’s the neighbours’ bamboo hedge but since it’s running bamboo, it’s ours as well.  It makes a frequent guest appearance amongst the native shrubs, pokes through cracks in the concrete driveway, squeezes its way around the foundations of the house. Regularly hacking it back is the only thing stopping our yard slowly transforming into panda paradise (in fact, every time I get out the saw the kids accuse me of species-threatening habitat destruction).

But rampant bamboo is actually fine.  In fact, it’s great, since I consider myself to be an artist whose natural medium is bamboo stakes and zip ties.  So far my oeuvre includes four gates, a 10 metre long enclosure for the vegetable garden, five trellises in a range of styles, a pergola, some windchimes and more bean tripods than you can shake a stick at.  Obviously, if you did shake a stick in my vicinity I’d probably grab it from you, attach zip ties to it and turn it into a trellis.

The wall of bamboo is a magical swaying whispering verdant thing.  Every year it manufactures the living fenceposts that keep our property’s ancient teetering side wall more or less upright.  And now it feeds us!  Okay, it feeds us with grass.  In fact, grass laden potentially fatal amounts of cyanide.  But it’s still food, even if you’re not a panda.

Bamboo shoots, I think, should be included in a new class of produce I’m calling “implausible vegetables”.  I’m not 100% sure how we define this category of foodstuffs.  One possible definition: “a vegetable that, in the process of preparation for human consumption, shrinks to a tiny fraction of its pre-preparation size.  The amount of the implausible vegetable that can actually be eaten is dramatically smaller than the quantity of peelings, husks, stems or leaves destined for the compost bin”.  Another possibility: “a vegetable which even rats refuse to eat”.

But is it simply implausible vegetables, or should it be implausible and dangerous vegetables?

The pics above were taken for our 7 year old’s class presentation: an explanation of a  simple procedure in the kitchen.  In her notes, she did stress that you needed to boyl the sliced shoots for at least 20 minits or you will be poysned.  Even so, if a wave of year twos with histotic hypoxia turn up at the local hospital, we will be keeping a low profile.

After three meals on the trot containing home-grown bamboo shoots, there has been some hypochondriacal consultation of Dr Google.  Hard to distinguish the early symptoms of toxicity, though, since weakness, confusion and headaches are, in my experience, a fairly normal consequence of a day at work.

Globe artichokes, of which I am a passionate admirer, are also clearly implausible, to wit:

But lethal?  Well, for a start, it’s clearly a mistake to allow anyone as unhygenic as I am near any kind of sterile procedure.  The throwaway line in my recipe that inclusion of raw garlic in the jar could induce botulism did not significantly reduce Home Canning Anxiety, either.  And to me, pickled veg and stuff in jars just scream deranged-scientist-in-subterranean-lab-full-of-body-parts-in-formaldehyde.  My own disturbing inaugural effort at artichoke hearts in oil was no exception.

But the more I think about it, the more all plant-based foods seem deeply implausible and highly likely to be dangerous.  You grow grass, pick the seeds, grind them into dust with rocks, add a single-celled micro-organism found on the human body, warm the mixture til it produces carbon dioxide, pummel it until the carbon dioxide diffuses, warm it again, pummel it again, heat it in a fire until you kill the eukaryotic microorganism, cool it and eat it.  What a lot of effort.  No wonder we all used to eat gruel.  And I’m not even factoring in the possibility that along the way the grain might have collected another fungus that causes hallucinations, convulsions, burning of the limbs and gangrene.   

But it’s not just modern, non-paleo foods.  You eat the tiny tiny flower buds? You eat the tiny tiny inverted flower buds?  You eat the stems of a plant traditionally giftwrapped before eating? You eat the extremely sour stems of a plant whose leaves are full of a toxic chemical used as a metal cleaner?  You eat the fruits of a carnivorous plant closely related to deadly nightshade? You grow and then systematically bury a plant closely related to deadly nightshade so you can eat its roots without them going green and prompting delerium, hypothermia and paralysis?

And I’m not even considering the implausibility of cheese – stealing the breast milk of a lactating mammal, mixing it with the stomach lining of a ruminant until it curdles, straining it, pressing it, putting it in a cave until it gets mould on it and then eating it. Hard to imagine the weird circumstances that led to this culinary breakthrough – although I guess cow-keeping cave dwellers with an acute food shortage and limited access to the internet were less thin on the ground in the past.

My conclusion: hungry people will eat anything, even if it takes weeks to prepare it and if, at the end of all that effort, it may well kill them.  We’re just lucky we have so many things that will potentially kill us on our doorstep.

Flowers of the Frozen North

Something new in the garden today: hazelnut flowers.  Our filberts have been in for about three years, and have produced a few catkins, but I’ve never seen these before.  They are very very tiny, though, so maybe they were there last year and I never noticed.

The miniscule red blooms are all on one tree – Ennis, “preferred variety for all markets”, Daleys boldly asserts.  Lucky Ennis.   “Hall’s Giant” sounds so much more magically productive but it’s mainly a pollinator, dangling those catkins.

Will we get some nuts this year?  It seems unlikely.  The raspberries, our little Stella cherry, three neglected high-chill apples, the Hayward kiwis, and the hazelnuts, all planted with foolish optimism. Okay, Sydney is subtropical and all these plants require a hundred plus chilling hours … that’s a hundred or maybe a hundred and fifty hours below 7 degrees C while in Sydney’s chilliest month, July, the average minimum is 8.1 degrees…. but we are at 200 metres elevation!  maybe we’re in a frost pocket! What about those chilly south-westerlies?

Our mighty leader, Anthony Abbott MP, confidently claims that “climate change is crap” so perhaps we are, as my hirsute medallion-wearing neighbour asserts, heading towards a Snowball Earth scenario: the Pacific Highway to Hornsby will be lined with snowpoles  and we will be skating, not taking the ferry, across Berowra Creek.  All my eccentric plant selections will be vindicated.

While I’m waiting for a glacier to form in the Sydney Basin, or at the very least for a small crop of hazelnuts, at the bottom of the garden the winter veggies are flowering.

The daikon is too tough to eat now, but the flowers are lovely and I’m planning to save the seeds.  The winter’s chinese greens are also in bloom.  The leaves are getting smaller, stringier and slightly bitter though I’ve still been picking them.  I’ve got a feeling these may be the mutant offspring of my favourite – red bok choi, an F1 hybrid.

The process of creating the F1s is like something from “Game of Thrones” – ten generations of in-breeding to produce a pure-blooded weaking, that is then matched with an inbred of a different tribe, to produce children with renewed vigour, sharing little with their spindly parents. These muscular cross-breeds are frustratingly incapable of passing on their all-conquering qualities to the next generation (an appropriately Machiavellian outcome that keeps gardeners in the thrall of the Plant Wizards of Monsanto). It’s kind of cool to save the seeds of the F1 hybrids not just to give the multinationals a crinkly mouth but also to see what sport comes up in the next generation.  And the next.  Who knows, perhaps eventually some robust throwback will thrive in the endless Winter?

Bok choi flowers

Borage: a salad climax community

Once upon a time, in an autumn long long ago, the soggy spot between the chook yard and the custard apple tree looked like this: a jumble of useful greens – mizuna, tatsoi, bok choi, watercress, borage, rocket and giant purple mustard.

Mixed leaves edit

Some months later, thanks to a super-dry July, the chickens’ enthusiasm for salad and our squeamish wing clipping (as fellow chicken-blogger Julie Adolph notes, “chickens are not penguins“), this is mostly what the salad patch looks like:

Borage super closeup

Borage: it’s a survivor.  Apparently it’s an unfashionable term in ecological circles these days, but I reckon mustard leaves (“too spicy!”) and borage (“too furry!”) are the the climax community of our salad patch.

In theory, you can eat borage leaves – they taste like cucumber.  Very very hairy cucumber.  The flowers are gorgeous though: fab in a salad, especially thrown in with some fire-engine red nasturtium flowers and perhaps faded yellow (rather chewy)  blooms of aragula, or the tiny white floral clusters that sway around the garden when you let daikon radish go to seed.  The idea of freezing blue “starflowers” in ice cubes for fancy-pants drinks rather appeals to me too.

I suspect we will have more borage flowers in time for ice-clinking weather.  It self seeds very reliably, it seems, which troubles me a little, since we’re a hop skip and a jump from the edge of the bush.  Easy enough to pull out, though, and a bee-flower too.  There’s the usual unsubstantiated talk of companion planting – in this case with strawberries, which I imagine must look good at the very least.  I’ll keep an eye on it: it may have to be exiled, like lemon balm, that enjoyed our shady slope just a bit too much, or the eye-catching but definitely weedy red orach.  But for now, I’ll keep pleasing the bees.

Borage bee flower

A breba crop

One of the figswhite adriatic? white genoa? – has a breba crop.  Only a few tiny figgy flower-fruits, mind, clinging on over the winter.  Nearly all are growing on branches that brush the white-painted wall – testimony to the power of microclimate, a solar ping-back I can still feel on my retina.  The figs have suffered from the dry this year, I think, their roots constrained in barrels.  It’s said they thrive on neglect, but I think perhaps not quite this much neglect.  Last summer’s tiny crop fell, confetti sized and yellowing, before it really began and the leaves dropped too, at least once.  El Nino is coming – I think I’d better get out the hose.

All-conquering kale and its frenemies

Good friends describe me as “herbal”.  I’ve been a lentil eater for 27 years and my shelves groan with organic gardening and vegetarian recipe books.  And I’m not averse to dabbling in a spot of ancient-learned-women’s-plant-knowedge-as-yet-unverified-by-modern-experimental-science.  But I have to say that companion planting has taken a body blow in our household in recent weeks.  Here’s why:

 Two kale plants, from the same punnet, planted less than a metre apart.  On your left, the kale that enjoyed the companionship of a cheerful red and orange flowered marigold, “Naughty Marietta”.  On your right, the kale out in the cold with no date  (though giant mustard, baby leeks and daikon radish are hanging around in a kind of unstructured way).

It turns out that the vague story I heard about marigolds, with their pungent foliage, as a nifty companion plant is true enough if you have a problem with nematodes, but dead wrong on the aphid front.  It seems that all-female parthenogenic parasites love the cheery flowers of marigolds even more than I do. But not enough to turn down the opportunity for a feast on a superfood.

In fact, I read recently that if you rub some vaseline on a yellow sticky label and stick it in amongst your veggies, the aphids will be lured in and get stuck on the lube so you can dispose of them thoughtfully.  But I’d advise you not to get too carried away with this approach, for a number of reasons: (a) if left long enough your post-it might attract aphids from further afield  (b) striding out back with a bundle of stationery in one hand and a tube of vaseline in the other will raise eyebrows amongst your neighbours and (c) the veracity of this story is no more guaranteed than the one about the marigolds and the aphids.

I’m not dissing the power of the herb entirely though.  It seems the smell of granny’s hanky does distract possums and bandicoots (and perhaps singing mice and super rats) from sniffing out newly sprouted peas and beans.  My broadies and sugar snaps are looking good under a vegenet liberally sprinkled with lavender flowers and leaves. I hold out hopes that this continue to work, significantly reassured by the fact that absolutely no one, as far as I know, recommends these as companion plants.