Frederick the Spud

One of the stops on my recent trip to Europe was Sanssouci Palace, near Potsdam in Germany, home to Frederick the Great who in 1744 had a terraced garden built to grow plums, figs and grapes – and, once he saw the view, adding a large summer residence.

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Glass ‘doors’ help heat up the fig trees planted against a south-facing terrace wall. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The name Sanssouci means ‘without a care’ and the yellow-walled palace, one attraction within a large park that includes several other gardens and historic buildings, is only one room wide and fully intended as a retreat from the pomp and circumstance of court.

Frederick the Great (1712-86) ruled Prussia for 26 years, the longest of any Hohenzollern king, and was an accomplished musician/composer (his flute is on display at Sanssouci), philosopher and soldier – and was the first world ruler to recognise the United States as a nation.

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The frontage of Sanssouci facing the terrace gardens. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Frederick was the third son of 14 children, the older male infants dying at their baptisms when the heavy crown was put on their tiny heads (fortunately, they figured it out, but still, two!) Frederick hated his father with a passion, and for good reason – after being hauled back from England with his best friend (they’d run off), dear old Dad sentenced Frederick to death, commuting it at the last moment in favour of his friend. And, of course, Frederick was made to watch the beheading!

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The view from the top terrace towards the city of Potsdam. A grape vine runs along the length of the terrace fence but our guide said the wine made here was never good. Photo: Sandra Simpson

In among all his other interests, Frederick was something of a horticulturalist – as well as the plums, figs and grapes, he also had greenhouses at Sanssouci for melons and pineapples. But his biggest contribution to the lives of Germans was encouraging the cultivation of potatoes (kartoffel) to try and halt the famines caused by bad cereal harvests – between 1708 and 1711, more than 40% of the population in East Prussia starved to death.

However, farmers were initially less than enthusiastic – after all, potatoes were animal fodder. It didn’t help that they tried to eat the leaves or eat the potatoes raw! Frederick persevered, describing them as “royal vegetables”, ordering them cooked for state banquets and making a great production of enjoying them, and planting large fields round Sanssouci. Legend has it he put an armed guard on the fields, deliberately relaxed at night to allow locals to steal the “treasure”. Finally, on March 24, 1756 Frederick ordered that everybody had to plant potatoes wherever there was room.


Frederick the Great at the age of 68, painted by Anton Graff. Image: Wikipedia

Why this interest in the humble spud? Frederick was a military strategy genius and understood that a well-nourished army would be superior to any other, while a well-fed population would be less prone to revolt. And so it proved.

Favourite German potato dishes today include potato pancakes, potato salads and potato dumplings – and of course the tuber also comes chipped, baked, roasted, boiled, mashed ….

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The grave of Fredrich der Grosse (Frederick the Great) at Sanssouci. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Frederick’s nephew, who succeeded him, decided the late king should be buried next to his father in Potsdam Church, despite Frederick’s express wish to be buried at Sanssouci. In his last will in 1752, the king who gave refuge to French philosopher Voltaire said: “I have lived as a philosopher and I wish to be buried as such, without pomp and circumstance or the slightest ceremony. Let me be taken by the light of a lantern with no cortege to Sanssouci and buried simply on the righthand side of the high terrace.” He died at Sanssouci in his armchair, aged 74.

Finally, in 1991 – 205 years after his death – that wish was carried out. Frederick the Great now lies alongside his beloved 11 whippets (who all have name stones too) and in a touching tribute Germans come and lay potatoes on the grave of der Kartoffelkönig (Potato King).

Plant stories: Japanese pagoda tree

Despite the sometimes heavy rain we enjoyed our recent visit to Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in London very much – the Temperate House has been re-opened; our friends took us to the remarkable paintings of Marianne North (1830-90; no photos allowed so click on the link to see the amazing interior of the gallery); the Princess of Wales Conservatory … and right beside The Hive art installation was a tree covered in a mass of fine white blossoms.

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Japanese pagoda tree at Kew. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Turns out this Japanese pagoda tree is one of the few remaining trees that was planted in the original 9-acre botanic gardens in about 1760! This tree is one of five imported for Kew by James Gordon (1708-80), a famous nurseryman of the time, and who introduced the tree to the UK in 1753, bringing it from Japan. He was also the first person to successfully germinate the seeds of the maidenhair tree or Ginkgo biloba from China and the specimen he gave Kew is another heritage tree still growing there.

Actually native to China and Korea, the Japanese pagoda tree was often seen planted in the grounds of Buddhist temples in Japan and collected by English botanists there which is how it got its common name. The Kew signboard says it’s often grown as ornamental, thanks to those masses of delicate flowers, but it is also used for timber, furniture, medicine and food. A yellow dye can be extracted from the seedpods and is commonly used for silks and batik.

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Daresay I’ll need some support when I’m 258 years old! Photo: Sandra Simpson

The Latin name of the tree – originally Sophora japonica – changed in 2006 to Styphnolobium japonicum based on information collected from DNA sequences by Kew scientists.

I’m not sure if The Hive was placed near this tree deliberately, but the flowers are certainly a magnet for bees. We could hear the buzz, even on a wet day.

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The tree flowers in late summer making it valuable to bees. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The Hive is a fascinating place, an artwork hooked up to a real beehive in the grounds to create an immersive experience for visitors.

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Wolfgang Buttress originally created The Hive for the UK Pavilion at the 2015 Milan Expo.
It’s 17m tall and constructed from 170,000 aluminium parts and 1,000 LED lights, and can be entered on two levels. Photo: Sandra Simpson


A good fit

Hopefully you won’t have missed me while I was away recently – 2 months in northern Europe. As I’m settling back in (and it’s raining today), it seemed a good chance to start sharing some photos.

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This grape vine in Bruges (Belgium) was quite healthy despite growing out a tiny hole in the pavement cobbles. Photo: Sandra Simpson

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Even a tiny balcony can be enhanced with window boxes. Seen in the central area of the coastal city of Klaipeda, Lithuania. Photo: Sandra Simpson

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Squash growing on tee-pees at the northern Netherlands at Hoogland Open-air Museum, which sets put to re-create 19th century life. Photo: Sandra Simpson

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Working in a Stockholm (Sweden) community garden (notwithstanding interruptions by nosy foreigners). The few beds in this square near the National History Museum are administered by the council and the ‘holders’ can grow what they like. Photo: Sandra Simpson

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Also in Stockholm, in the Larkstaden district, a clematis carefully contained. Photo: Sandra Simpson


Earlybird offer running out

If you’ve been thinking about going to this year’s New Zealand Flower and Garden Show in west Auckland, a reminder that the Earlybird Any Day offer ends on August 31.

Running over five days at The Trusts Arena from November 28 to December 2, the show offers visitors the chance to experience award-winning garden exhibits, floral art installations and displays, indulge in a spot of retail therapy and enjoy gourmet food and beverages.


Favourites from last year’s debut show will be back, including the FLONZI Apprentice Florist of the Year Competition and Yates Community Gardening, as well as Ray White Austar Realty Meet the Experts.

I went to the media day last year and can say it was a pretty good fist for a first event – the show is helmed by the indefatigable Kate Hillier who, shall we say, knows her onions when it comes to flower shows! Read my reports here, here, here and the Best in Show garden here.

For more information on the NZ Flower and Garden Show see the website.

Bears are not the only danger

Pausing at the garden in front of Wrangell Museum, our guide teaches us that it’s not only bears we need to look out for in southeast Alaska, some of the plant life is scary too.

Britany Lindley, a member of the local Tlingit (Klingit) people and an Indian Affairs law student, is a fount of information about her hometown of some 2500 people.

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Britany Lindley at the Chief Shakes Tribal house in Wrangell. Photo: Sandra Simpson

She points to a large-leafed plant with warnings about its hooked thorns that require a hospital visit for removal. The roots and root bark of Devil’s club (Oplopanax horridus) have been used as a natural medicine by native Alaskans for years and this cousin to ginseng is being researched as a possible treatment for tuberculosis.

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Devil’s club berries – look nice, don’t they? Photo: Sandra Simpson

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But this is what’s lurking underneath the leaves. The barbs are shaped so that they break off in the skin when one attempts to remove them! Photo: Sandra Simpson

Read a fascinating story about harvesting Devil’s club.

And then there’s what Britany calls Indian celery but in other parts of Alaska and ‘the lower 48’ (mainland US) is known as cow parsnip. The stems and leaves are covered in fine hairs which irritate the skin, while sap that touches the skin causes painful blisters when the skin is exposed to sunlight. (The plant’s botanical name is still evolving and is either Heracleum maximum or H. lanatum.)

“Still got the scars,” our bus driver says, unrolling his shirt sleeves. He was using a weed trimmer on a sunny day to clear an area, without realising it contained cow parsley – and ended up hospitalised as his hands, arms and chest began to react.

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Indian celery. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Local Tlingit are, however, immune to the plant which, Britany theorises, may be because cooked, peeled stems are a traditional food, even for small children.

But there are benign plants too – particularly the berries that crop in the all-too-short Alaskan summer, although picking wild berries brings its own dangers as hungry bears want a share too!

Wild berries include salmonberry (bramble), bunchberry (groundcover dogwood), thorn-free thimbleberry, wild blueberry, cloudberry (found in bogs) and huckleberry. When in leaf, huckleberries are almost indistinguishable from blueberries but our guide in Sitka advised feeling the stem – blueberries have a round stem, huckleberries square.

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A patch of fireweed, seen in Haines. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Summer also means pink spires of fireweed flowers (Chamaenerion angustifolium) on any patch of open ground – its common name comes from the fact that it’s one of the first plants to appear in burned ground.

The plant’s young leaves can be used as salad greens, and fireweed flavouring is used for syrups, sweets, jellies and ice-cream. Fireweed tea, popular in Russia before the introduction of tea from China, is still available.

The plant blooms from the bottom of the stem prompting an Alaskan saying that when  the fireweed flowers have reached the top of the stem, summer is coming to an end.

Plant stories: John Sharp

The first plant nursery in Waikato was established by John Sharp at Cambridge in the 1870s.

He was the originator of ‘Sharp’s Early’ plum and in 1884 showed 400 varieties of apples at an Auckland show. In 1885 he had a jam factory built on his property and in 1895 was chairman of the Waikato Fruit Growers’ Association.

Sharp’s Early is described as a medium to large, oval, red-fleshed, deep-red-skinned plum that is soft and juicy and has good flavour. It bears heavily on a rather low, spreading tree that is self-fertile. The chapter on ‘New Horizons in Diversification of Temperate Food Crops’ in the 2016 book Plant Biodiversity: Monitoring, Assessment and Conservation lists Sharp’s Early as good for ‘mid-hills’.

John arrived in Cambridge in about 1873. He married Eliza Vincent in Hamilton in February 1875 and they had nine children, though not all of them survived to adulthood. They established an orchard on the Hamilton Road just out of the borough and John became well known as a nurseryman. Many of Cambridge’s trees, hedge plants and shrubs have come from his nursery.

He was a nurseryman when he became an Honorary Member of the Duke of Cambridge Lodge on October 17, 1874, while on November 9, 1876 John joined the Cambridge Cavalry Volunteers. In 1879 he joined the Cambridge & Waikato Reed Band.

Newspaper reports from the time show auction sales in Piako, Te Awamutu, Ohaupo and Huntly, as well as Cambridge and in July 1888 a major auction was held – the entire stock of the nursery, including 5000 fruit trees, pines, camellias and ‘fancy shrubs’, was for sale ‘as the nursery is being shifted’ – as well as 50 acres of land and the Sharp family home. It’s unclear as to where the family shifted, but in 1900 trees from Sharp’s nursery were still being offered for sale in Cambridge.

In 1889, the ‘regular spring clearing sale’ listed 1000 assorted apple trees, 200 plum, 100 peach, 1000 Pinus insignis and 1000 Cupressus macrocarpa.

The Waikato Horticultural Society’s show for that year, held in Cambridge on March 16, featured a ‘splendid display’ of apples, according to the newspaper report – 200 varieties from HE Sharp of Waikomiti (it’s unclear whether he was a relation), 160 from John Sharp and 107 from Mr Keeley. John Sharp won the fuchsia, coleus, balsam, begonia and fern classes in the pot plant section, and the aster, zinnia, antirrhinum and dahlia in the cut flower sections, while recording two firsts and a second for his apples, a second for his peaches, three commendeds for his plums and a commended for his tomatoes!

In May 1895 the running of the Hautapu cemetery was given to Cambridge Borough Council and all the poplar trees were grubbed out and burned with the fern and debris. A vocal debate on whether the cemetery should be a park or garden was well documented in the Waikato Advocate newspaper. The garden won, and all the Cupressus lawsonia along both sides of the main avenue (which were meeting overhead) were reluctantly removed.

John Sharp suggested suitable shrubs and planted a number of ornamental and flowering varieties. (Along with the camellias at Woodlands the old trees in the cemetery are among the oldest in the Waikato.)

John died in 1915 and Eliza in 1937 and they are both buried at Hautapu.