Mulberries for a Queen

The historic nature of central London is hard to miss but sometimes it’s difficult for New Worlders to appreciate the span of time which is contained in some relatively small spaces.

Take Middle Court, for instance. The London Parks and Gardens Trust website records: It is possible there have been gardens since the Knights Templar established themselves here in c.1160… Middle Temple’s gardens and buildings were reworked in mid-late 17th century when the gardens were enclosed by brick wall. In 1681-82 Fountain Court was formed and two black mulberry trees (Morus nigra) were planted here in 1887 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Jubilee.

One of the Jubilee mulberry trees in Middle Temple. The fountain has been splashing since 1681 but was emptied for maintenance in July 2018. Go on a mulberry tour of London here. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Middle Temple has plenty of Royal connections, including the dubious King John, who used the Temple as his London headquarters (1214-5). It was from here that he issued the two charters that led to the Magna Carta, signed in June 1215 at Runnymede.

The first production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was performed in Middle Temple Hall in 1602, while the Bard used Temple Garden – famous for its roses – as the setting (Henry VI Part I) where Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, plucks a white rose and the Earl of Somerset plucks a red for the Lancastrians (thus marking a fictional start to the real Wars of the Roses 1455-87). Charles Dickens used Fountain Court as a setting in Barnaby Rudge (1841) and Martin Chuzzlewit (1844).

Find a really good write-up about the whole Middle Temple area here. (He got a private tour.) Interestingly, the Inner and Middle Temples are their own local authorities and do not come within the jurisdiction of the Corporation of London.

Heard the clip-clop from inside Temple Church (a fascinating place) so darted outside to see … two mounted policewomen passing by. Photo: Sandra Simpson

But back to the mulberries … in 2016 a survey being carried out by the Conservation Foundation’s Morus Londinium project identified more than 135 significant mulberry trees in London – and more were coming to light every week.

The black mulberry (Morus nigra) is native to Iran, Syria and Turkey and is grown for its fruit, while the white mulberry (Morus alba) is native to China and integral to the silk industry with leaves that feed silkworms. The Brief History of London’s Mulberries contains much information about James I’s plan for a home-grown silk industry and why it didn’t work.

Black mulberry fruit in Middle Temple. Photo: Sandra Simpson

But the trees were known in London long before 1609. Excavations of water-logged Roman sites in London in the 1970s found well-preserved mulberry pips, revealing that the trees were cultivated in London as early as the 1st century AD.

White mulberries in Iran, one of several places outside China where the trees have naturalised. The fruit was delicious. Photo: Sandra Simpson

From around the plant world

There’s nothing I enjoy more than noodling round the web to see what’s going on in the big, wide world of plants. So grab yourself a cuppa, get comfy and let’s get reading!

Cacti thefts in the southwest of the United States are an increasing problem, according to this story from The Guardian.

Park rangers now insert microchips into valuable cacti to try and protect them. “Saguaros aren’t just beautiful to look at; they also fetch a hefty price, up to $100 a foot, on the black market, where they are enormously popular with landscapers.” In 2014, more than 2,600 stolen cacti of all types were seized at US borders – up from 411 just a year before – but they know it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Graham Rice takes a hard look at Chelsea’s Plant of the Year competition, won last year by Hydrangea Runaway Bride Snow White. “The winning hydrangea looked superb, no doubt about it. But in a few short weeks its flowers will fade and we must take the nursery’s word for the fact that it will flower again,” he writes in this Telegraph article.

In this piece from last year New Zealand science writer Bob Brockie examines the mysterious ways of the giant Chinese timber bamboo (Phyllostachys bambusoides​) which flowers only every 120 years, with very few flowers or none in between. “Flowering must super-stress the plants, for they die soon after.”

The toromiro tree (Sophora toromiro, a cousin to our kowhai and with the same yellow flowers) became extinct on the island of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in the 1960s as a result of deforestation.

Now, they hang on only in botanic gardens around the world. The most recent success came from a collaborative project between Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria and Montreal Botanical Garden, with six young trees grown successfully in Montreal after 40 seeds, which had been in freeze storage for 15 years, were sent from Melbourne.

Heard of Plantfluencers? Me neither. So here’s an article from the New York Times to help us out. In 2017, nearly a quarter of houseplant sales in the US were made to those aged between 18 and 34.

The other side of the fence

As the sun continues to shine and the television weather forecasters (finally) begin to look glum about there being no prospect of rain, I thought I’d share some photos taken in London last July.

The south of Britain last year experienced its hottest summer and most prolonged dry spell since 1976. The three days we spent in central London measured 28°C, 29°C and 30°C! And that was the air temperature – add in the heat radiating off the buildings and streets and was it any wonder we swapped our ‘sweat box’ student accommodation (cheap and central) on the last night for an air-conditioned hotel room (also central but not so cheap)?

Needless to say there were restrictions on water use – just as we’re now experiencing. But to my eye not all the green swards appeared equal. See what you think.

Green Park lies between Piccadilly and Buckingham Palace. What was left of the grass was browned off. Photo: Sandra Simpson
Buckingham Palace’s back lawn, where the garden parties are held, was a different colour. Photo: Sandra Simpson
Lincoln’s Inn Fields is the largest public square in London, taking its name from the nearby Inns of Court (legal offices). Homeless people, a few of whom can be seen, have been gathering here for years. Fences were erected in 1993 to keep them out at night. Photo: Sandra Simpson
Middle Temple (part of Temple Inn, one of the Inns of Court), allows the hoi-polloi, ie, you and me, to access its lawn and gardens from noon-3pm on weekdays from May to July and September. Read more about the garden.

Herb Awareness Week

Not sure which week it is in March, but the NZ Herb Federation is running its annual Herb Awareness Week this month.

The herbs chosen for the spotlight are anise-hyssop (the international herb of the year), wild strawberry, green tea (Camellia sinensis), and the native rimu (Dacrydium cupressinum). Click on the links to read the federation’s information sheets about these plants. Read about Waikato’s very own Zealong Tea Estate, which produces green and black teas.

Tea pickers, mainly from Cambodia, at the Zealong Tea Estate, near Gordonton. Photo: Sandra Simpson

March is also Sustainable Backyards Month in the Tauranga-Western Bay of Plenty and Herb Awareness Week dovetails nicely into those activities. Please click on the Events tab at the top of this page to see what’s going on.

Gin and tonic

Massey University researchers and two gin distillers are calling on eagle-eyed members of the public to help them locate and identify common juniper (Juniperus communis) trees and shrubs growing in New Zealand.

The Great New Zealand Juniper Hunt is part of a project to seek out genetic diversity of Juniperus communis subspecies or varieties in New Zealand – and select plants with the best berries for gin production (juniper berries are an essential ingredient for gin making). The plan is, once the best selections have been made, to plant juniper berry plantations.

A juniper berry is actually a female seed cone with unusually fleshy and merged scales. The cones from a few species, especially Juniperus communis, are used to give gin its distinctive flavour and may be the only spice derived from conifers. The berries are also used in Scandinavian cuisine. Image: Wikipedia

“Right now,” the Reefton Distilling Co website says, “without a local supply, we are forced to rely on juniper berries coming in from overseas (typically, from the Mediterranean), which isn’t great on the planet and means we miss out on the huge potential benefits of using fresh, locally-sourced juniper berries that would boast flavours unique to New Zealand.” The other distillery involved is BeGin Distilling in New Plymouth. The scientists and distillers have formed the Juniper Consortium to run the project.

Project co-ordinator Talon Sneddon says that as common juniper has been a popular plant over the years, it may be present in public parks, as well as private gardens. If possible, he says, send a gender identification (see a helpful identification guide), along with information regarding location and abundance, photo of your samples and the best way to contact you. Queries or offers to collect samples for DNA testing to Talon Sneddon.

The other half of the gin and tonic equation is the Cinchona tree, the bark of which is used to produce quinine which gives tonic water its mild bitterness. Quinine is still used in the fight against malaria, a disease that has killed more people than all the world’s wars and plagues combined – and until the late 1930s was the only remedy for malaria!

In the early 1600s, Spanish colonists in Peru noticed indigenous people using the bark of the Cinchona tree, ground up and added to water, to relieve shivering, a major sign of malaria. The shivers turned out to be nothing to do with malaria – but in a great stroke of luck the bark turned out to be just as effective against malaria (which, by the way, didn’t originate in the tropics but in the temperate regions of the world.)

Native to the Andes, the trees are evergreen, have a red-pink blossom and can grow up to 30m (there are at least 23 species in the Cinchona genus). The Spaniards built an industry around it the bark, although sustainability seemed to be far from their minds. Read more here.

A 19th century illustration of Cinchona calisaya by Franz Eugen Köhler from Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen. Image: Wikipedia

According to Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History, the bark is harvested when the tree is about 12 years old, achieved by coppicing (cutting a tree back to the ground and letting it reshoot) or stripping the bark lengthways and binding the wound with moss, leaving the bark to grow back. Both of these ways allow the tree to survive. However, during the grab in South America, trees were simply cut down, the bark stripped and the timber left to rot.

By the mid-19th century the Dutch were establishing Cinchona plantations in Indonesia, while the British had plants in Kew, Calcutta’s Botanic Gardens and the government gardens in the Nilgri Hills in India. By 1884 the Dutch were harvesting enough bark to overtake the South American trade – quinine was instrumental in saving many lives during the construction of the Panama Canal in the early 20th century

The Dutch dominance of the quinine trade was brought to a halt by the Japanese invasion of Indonesia in World War 2. However, before the Japanese could capitalise on their quinine gains, Allied scientists finally came up with substitutes to use in the fight against malaria.

A medicinal gin and tonic. Image: Wikipedia