Coming up Cabbages: a few words on Cordylines

February 11, 2011 § 22 Comments

Ireland is often a green and misty land (although less greener than usual during this cold winter). And one of the things that surprises visitors is the sight of “palm trees” incongruously raising their mop tops through the Celticky fog. They decorate our towns and suburbs, they are blasted by the salt air on our seafronts, and they are often seen in pairs guarding the entrances to farmhouses. But, they are not palm trees at all: they are the New Zealand native, Cordyline australis. They enjoy the common name of “cabbage tree”, supposedly because settlers in New Zealand found the young leaves to be a tolerable substitute for cabbage.

Cordylines flanking the door of Corke Lodge in Co Wicklow

Cordylines are much loathed. Partly it is because of the occasional and near-indestructible leaves that the trees shed (dried, they make great kindling) and partly — I think — it is because they have both lowbrow and suburban associations. It’s not unusual to see them sprouting out of a jolly carpet of summer bedding. In other words, in the eyes of a certain kind of refined gardener, the cabbage tree is a shining example of bad taste.

One of the first things that cordyline-haters do upon inheriting one in a garden, is to hack it down to the ground. The trees are unfazed by such insults, and regenerate eagerly, popping out several stems in the place of the previous single one. Good for them. This winter and the last, though, have not been kind to cordylines, and the inland parts of this country are littered with their still-standing, but mummified, corpses. I fear they may not rise again to annoy the better classes of gardeners.

Cordyline in the garden at Kylemore Abbey, Connemara

Where I live, however, all these misunderstood New Zealanders are in the pink of health. Our barometer has not dipped lower than minus 5 degrees Centigrade (23 F), whereas elsewhere in Ireland, the temperature was ten or more degrees colder. In our mild climate, the cordyline blooms every year. The angular panicles are crammed with creamy flowers, which open in late spring, and go on for weeks. The scent — strongest in the evening — is powerful and lily-like. For me it is one of the exhilarating fragrances of early summer. Bees would seem to agree. They love the flowers, and work them all day. And in the autumn and early winter the thousands of ivory-coloured berries, which are full of fats, help to keep birds alive. My neighbours’ tree across the road is a busy re-fuelling point for blackbirds, thrushes, starlings, blackcaps and wood pigeons.

Snowy cordylines across the road

If you don’t like cordylines, or if they don’t do well in your colder area, then — as we say here in a very self-righteous voice — I’m sorry for you. And you’re not likely to be interested in knowing that they belong to the same family as asparagus, Asparagaceae, a clan that also includes lily-of-the-valley and hosta.

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Flaky Films

December 20, 2010 § 5 Comments

I awarded myself a snow day today. There was too much outdoor work to be done: feeding birds, shovelling and sweeping snow, talking about snow, photographing snow and filming snow.

In our mild corner of Ireland, we hardly ever see snow (or at least we didn’t until about eleven months ago), so it’s all terribly exciting. And white. Today, although it was nearly the shortest day of the year, it was the brightest day in weeks, thanks to the light reflecting from the snowy blanket.

Nothing really happens in the following two wobbly and amateur films, but the foghorns are nice, and the second one is quite restful, offering 45 mesmeric seconds of falling flakes.

This is what the snow looked like from our balcony this morning:

And this is from the kitchen window a few minutes later:

Snovember

November 30, 2010 § 6 Comments

This year, at about four in the morning on November 27th, winter arrived with about as much drama as you can imagine. We had sudden head-cracking thunder and lightning, followed by mung-bean-sized pellets of compacted snow that hurtled down the chimney, pinged off the grate and rolled onto the bedroom floor.

The pellets, I’ve learned recently, are called “graupel”, and they occur when supercooled droplets of water condense on a snowflake. The idea of anything condensing on a snowflake seems odd, but there you have it, that’s graupel for you.

Melting graupel, nestling in Agave

In the morning, the garden was covered in an inch of snow — both the conventional variety, and our new acquaintance, graupel. The next night we had two more inches of white stuff. It has been bone-chillingly cold for days, and there is no sign of the conditions out there changing back to the comparatively balmy maritime weather that we normally experience in this clement corner of Ireland.

Still, although I’m colder than I’ve been in months, I’m very pleased to have learned a new word, and to have had a chance to take some snowy pictures.

Phlomis russeliana: pretty, meringue-topped skeletons

Snap du Jour

Rare migrants brave the Irish snow

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