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!

Love, death and stray cats

It’s not often that I find myself on same page at Tony Abbott, Australia’s climate change denying PM.  But having exhausted the potential of their previous three word slogans, the conservative government recently moved on to a new one: “Kill the Cats”.  After this week’s events I think I could find some common cause with Tones on this theme.

I know you shouldn’t have favourites but Shyla was my favourite chicken.

She came to our place as a bundle of fluff and managed, uniquely, to survive our enthusiastic but doofus chick rearing.  She was the hen you would trip over at the chookhouse gate, where she would be pacing up and down the second the back door opened.  And then she would follow you round the garden waiting for lovely things like grapes or curlworms or weevil ridden comestibles and if none of those were forthcoming, peck your butt to see if it would make an adequate alternative.  Her response to a human approaching was to squat and jiggle in what I think translates loosely from hen as “ok, you can mount me now”.  Which was faintly disturbing, while at the same time suggested an affection of some strange kind.

And that’s not even mentioning the fact that she was our one reliable layer, producing a daily egg all winter long.

Since she was such a useful, friendly and characterful girl, she was obviously the first choice for a midnight snack when a great big feral cat came visiting our yard in the dead of night this past week.  I don’t want to sound callous but the bloody thing could have taken Snowball the silky bantam – smaller, ancient, more visible in dim lighting, huffy around humans, laying eggs only when the weather and the tides are just right.

But no, it had to grab Shyla, the life and soul of the backyard. The Top Chook took one for the team.

Everyone’s very subdued down in the bottom of the garden now, accepting the indignity of being carried, half-asleep, from their perilous perch on the edge of the fig tree barrel, to secure lodgings in Palm Beach, the long-abandoned vernacular modernist chicken coop.

Shyla was the victim of our hubris – the one who paid the ultimate price of six years without locking the chooks up at night.

So what changed in our suburban ecosystem?  I reckon it’s the departure of the (somewhat annoying) little yappy dog next door.  The neighbours on the other side have a laconic German Shepherd who doesn’t even chase the chooks.  But the yapster would have given a cat a run for its money.  If Tony and cronies want to get rid of feral cats, it’s not red-necks with guns that will do the job.  Scientists reckon the best strategy is to restore the top predators – dingoes.  Based on anecdotal evidence – the death toll in our backyard – I reckon they’re right.

With sufficient vigilance we can protect the chooks but we can’t do much for the bandicoot that still noses its way through the veggie garden at night.  Bandicoots recognise dingoes (and dogs more generally) – they know to avoid them.  In fact, some scientists have argued that this makes dingoes – placentals, only here for 50,000 years or so – natives.  But bandicoots still haven’t figured out cats.

I’m trying to find some positives in the situation.  My latest planting of broad beans has sprouted, magically unmolested.  I could attribute this success to my lavender mulch, or to the carefully secured veggie net, or the cold weather that has probably driven the local rodent population indoors (where we live.  Gulp.)  But perhaps the feral feline took a few rats as a chaser after devouring poor Shyla.  It’s a choice, it seems, eggs or beans.  Not fair!  I want both!

It’s all very sad.  Our eight year old got it right as she sobbed herself to sleep the other night: “you know where there’s someone in your care and you can’t protect them, you feel like there’s a hole in your heart”.  Yeah, babe I do.

I’ve been thinking about another lost lovely one this week.  The twelfth anniversary of our son’s death has just passed us by.  Born, unexpectedly, with a lopsided and innovatively organised brain, he was a bonny baby boy, whose plump little body suffered many seizures and would never really do quite what he wanted.  He had a short but lovely life, that ended suddenly and surprisingly (we shouldn’t really have been surprised) before dawn on on a beautiful winter’s morning, just like these last glorious days.

For a time, during the relentless rumination that followed our sleepy newborn’s diagnosis, I spent a lot of time thinking about stray cats.

Stray cats crapping in our pocket sized backyard.  Stray cats with a payload of toxoplasmosis gondii, “one of the most successful parasites on Earth”.  It inhabits the bodies of around half of the world’s human population, and plenty of other warm blooded animals too, but only reproduces only inside pussycats, emerging to infect other creatures, the parasite transmitted through cysts lurking in its poo.

Recently there’s been a pop science fascination with the consequences of toxoplasmosis infection.  While (most of the many many) infected people are asymptomatic, researchers have found that rats with the parasite become risk takers.  Losing their natural fear of cats, some even become attracted to the scent of their predator (not coincidentally, the parasite’s host).  Humans with toxo, too, seems to have somewhat different personalities than those without.  This idea, that humans – philosophers and planet conquerers – might have our very selves shaped by a single celled organism, disturbs and fascinates us.

If you are unlucky enough to be infected for the first time in the early weeks of pregnancy, your baby can be born with congenital toxoplasmosis, with possible serious consequences for the child’s health.  Toxo can cause problems with vision and hearing, seizures and intellectual disability.  Which is why I found myself thinking so long and hard, a decade or so ago, about my lack of gardening gloves and the roaming neighbourhood moggies.

In the end, my ruminations about infected cat shit went nowhere, like the dwelling upon dioxins from the incinerated corpses of foot-and-mouth infected cows that filled the air that year, or my endless Googling on the chromosonal origins of pachygyria (“Come back if you have another one with the same thing” the genetic counsellor suggested.  We were floored.  Although not quite so amazed as when she asked us, the Scotsman and the Australian, if we were cousins)

Very very occasionally Tony Abbott, MP, is accidentally right: sometimes shit just happens.

How do we make sense of these things, the deaths of our beloved children and the untimely demise of our pet chickens?  How are they connected, the miraculous germination of broadbeans and the midnight movements of predators?  The passing of parasites and personality traits from rats to cats to cat lovers?  The hidden life of the soil and the secrets in our bloodstream that can elate us and destroy us, often at the very same time?

Bandicoot in the Sacred Garden

Is it just me, or does this sound like the title of an atrocious 1970s Australian erotic film? Admittedly I’ve never heard a bloke describe their wedding tackle as any kind of marsupial.  Is this a failure of the national imagination? Possibly.

Anyway, the “sacred garden” is not as lewd as it sounds – it’s the name our eight year old has given the veggie patch that shelters beneath the frame of our ancient trampoline.

I’m not quite sure why she views it as a holy site.  It could be the shape.  In the organic gardening world, it seems, circles, mandalas and spirals have some mystical life-giving power that doesn’t flow through your old fashioned rectangular plot.   I’m skeptical, but at this stage in our death-match with the brush turkeys I’ll take any advantage I can get.  From chook dome to remodelled tramp to recycled children’s bicycle wheels, there are no corners here.

And the Mandala of Aviary Wire does seem to have worked its magic on my brassicas, despite extreme flimsiness.  Having been abandoned by the side of the road after a rich and full life getting between bouncing children and broken ankles, the trampoline net is more a spiritual than a physical barrier to aerial raiders, held in place by optimism and zip ties.  But to date, my newly planted garlic – positioned, of course, in a protective ring around the broccoli – has remained in the ground and my crop of red mustard and baby bok choi, while small, is perfectly formed.

It’s not looking so good on the broad bean front, despite a lavender and rose geranium mulch that makes the chook dome smell like a seniors’ underpants’ drawer.  I’d like to think a benevolent long-nosed bandicoot is squeezing in under the wire to snaffle the curl grubs amongst the asparagus crowns.  But I suspect that in reality I’m hosting rodents with keen insights into the politics of eco-nationalism.  “When you go in and take the beans, Rupert, make sure you leave a cone-shaped hole.  That way the marsupial-loving hippie will never dare leave rat poison out again.”  If only I owned an infra-red video camera with a motion sensor I might find out for sure – or at least collect some footage of hirsute visitors for that retro Ocker erotica.

 

Bowerbirds: snacking for solar gain

Before the fall

Before the fall: it’s always sunnier on the other side of the fence

The gang’s back.  Loads of satin bowerbirds in the garden at the moment.  I’ve seen a couple of mature males, with their glossy blue-black feathers and gorgeous indigo eyes, but most of the robotic whistles, clicks, churrs and cracks in the trees seem to be the “greens” – juvenile males and females, hanging out in a pack.

I’ve heard grim stories about the antics of bowerbirds in the veggie garden.  Apparently they like to lull the backyard grower into a false sense of security and then swoop in and devastate your greens.  But I’m feeling kind of relaxed on that front.  After the brush turkeys exhumed my long awaited Hass avocado treelet, and my big girls, the young-bloods, the prodigious egg-layers, started lounging around under the baby banana trees, making eyes at my kale and chomping on every “poisonous” rhubarb leaf the moment it unfurled, I’ve decided to go totally Christo.  Every seed, every seedling, every newly planted tuber has its own little  blanket of horticultural fleece.  Anything growing that’s remotely likely to appeal to the poultry palate is swathed in netting.

The one upside of the chooks’ blithe disregard of the garden fence is the complete and total elimination of trad from the veggie patch.  Three months ago our spindly raspberry canes and brave little Nightingale persimmon were drowning in a lush wash of juicy stems and emerald leaves, even as the ground slowly dehydrated around them. But now – nada.  A few stems scattered around, waiting to reroot after the rain but not a leaf to be seen.  It’s all very satisfying.

So it’s not all bad when your flock take to the greenery.  The bowerbirds haven’t got a chance of getting my broadbeans.  But with their leaf-picking ways, they are doing sterling work for the environment.

Brushturkey in liquidambar

Brush turkey roosting in our poor denuded liquidambar

Their latest hang-out is the neighbour’s liquidambar tree – gorgeous and looming, throwing a great long shadow across our ice-box house all autumn. Basking in the sunshine on the other side of the fence, it steadfastly refuses to shed its leaves, months and months after our poor overhung specimen has shivered and shaken off its own.  And then, when the last ruby shreds are about to be blown from its branches, and the winter sun finally promises to warm our August days, the bloody thing starts growing leaves again!

But never fear, Super Satin Bowerbird is here!  I can’t prove definitively that their main objective was improving our passive solar gain but after closely studying these photographs for insights into bowerbird psychology and culinary habits, it certainly looks like it.

Diggers

Naughty as it is to dig – vandalising the earthworms’ underground cities and all that – I decided to take to the spade today.  The youngsters did a pretty good job in their weeks under the chook dome of clearing that patch of its weeds but excavating the couch grass was beyond them.  And I wanted to work in the chicken manure they left behind: black-and-white gold it might hypothetically be called by some chicken-obsessive. And, let’s face it, I just felt like digging.

And now I have more garden buddies to help out.  The young chickens returned with some enthusiasm to their old stomping ground.  Tragically perhaps, there are few moments when I’m more content than gardening with an inquisitive chook scratching away beside me, perilously close to being whacked by a spade in its eagerness to dart in for grubs.  Today I almost decided that the psychodrama of raising day-old chicks was worth it.  Shyla, raised in the brooder, hung out with me, approaching periodically to inquire, with a dinkum Aussie rising inflection, when I was going to find her something delicious to eat.  Absolutely charming.

Allegedly Einstein said “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.  This aphorism seems appropriate to ANZAC Day somehow.  It also quite accurately describes my approach to planting broad beans.  I’ve had two goes at getting my broadies going with minimal success, but now the human and chicken digging is done, I’m trying again.  The humane traps are in the post, and in the mean time I’m hoping a well secured vege net will keep critters at bay.  With luck aromatherapy will be my ace in the hole.  The beans planted right by the lavender hedge seemed to germinate unmolested – benefiting, I suspect, from distracting smell of the companion plants.  This particular net was draped right over my “Frenchette” lavandula dentata for the last three months.  It’s as delightfully scented as your granny’s hankie: hopefully rats don’t favour potpourri.

If that doesn’t work, perhaps I should leave out some of the unexpected harvest that appeared underfoot today. One scraggy looking stem of jerusalem artichoke, sprouted from peelings I chucked to the chooks, produced two double handfuls of dangerously more-ish tubers.  Blow on winds of winter, the artichokes have arrived!  This bounty was greeted with groans in the kitchen.  I love the taste and try to sneak them into to soups and bakes and stirfries, just one or two, cut up small so no-one will notice.  But the post-prandial flatulence that inevitably ensues is a dead give-away.  If they have a similar effect on rats, this could be our secret weapon in organic pest control.  Maybe if we leave them scattered around the garden-robbers will gorge themselves on that toothsome but indigestible inulin and simply explode.  If the decorous aroma of lavender  doesn’t work, perhaps the more prosaic accumulation of gas in the alimentary canal is the way to go.