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Plant writings, gardening thoughts & observations of Paul Hervey - Brookes, Award Winning Garden Designer & Plantsman.
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Monday, 29 June 2009

Scolymus, Stachys, Helianthus & Cynara.

After writing about Tea, which I adore, I began to think about other plants which have had such an influence. Immediately there were two many options and some of those, although I am sure interesting to pursue, where not terribly exciting to me.





I have therefore struck upon a plant who’s immature flowers I positively gorge upon through the first parts of summer and after its over I look forward to eating copious amounts of its unrelated counter part. Artichokes, or as none artichoke lovers may call them, ‘make me chokes’.


Globe artichoke, Cynara scolymus, is one of the oldest continually cultivated vegetables and was a main stay of ancient Greek & Roman tables. Prepared in a earthen glazed bowl, ours all being chipped, with some plump over ripe tomatoes, a liberal splash of olive oil, torn basil leaves and a good course grinding of salt & pepper, you could when staring into the mixture, be transported back to Imperial Rome. The combination oozes not only the warmth but the intensity of a Mediterranean summer.


Artichokes were introduced into England in the 16th century and was grown in monastic gardens both for decorative reasons and as a vegetable. However, history is littered with references to them, in the 4th Century BC Theophrastus stated that they were most pleasant boiled or eaten raw.


In 1730 and a description of culinary variation I particularly like, Tournefort says, “ The Artichoke is well known at the table. What we call the bottom is the thalamus on which the embryos of seeds are placed. The leaves are the scales of the empalement. The choke is the florets, with a chaffy substance intermixt. The French & Germans boil the heads as we do, but the Italians generally eat them raw with salt, oil and pepper”. Something which I can testify as true from a conversation I had with Felice Tocchini of Fusion Brasserie. Whilst visiting our nursery he picked out an Italian variety and told me the best way to eat them was raw with pepper, salt & oil.





However, I have made a delicious Artichoke au Gratin from a 1950’s french cookery book which belonged to my grandmother and with the addition of a little garlic, cheese and cream it is unrecognisable and utterly more-ish.


We grow two varieties which we sell at the nursery, the original ‘Green Globe’, which is a french variety not to be confused with the F1 modern hybrid and an Italian ‘Violetta di Chioggia’


The thistle like flowers when not being eaten do make highly attractive border additions, rich violet blue set of against the grey-green scales stoutly reaching up to 6ft. Some gardeners use globe artichokes in exactly the same way as Cardoon’s, Scolymus cardunculus, blanching the inner leaf stalks in the early part of the year. Cardoon’s need a lot of room and are renowned for there spiny growth, however it has its followers, Pliny recommended its medical properties and Dioscorides makes reference to large scale production around Great Carthage.


Both Cynara scolymus and Scolymus cardunculus, although different genus, are related being members of the Compositae family, which is the 2nd largest flowering family. Also a member of the same family and therefore related sharing the floral number/key is Jerusalem Artichoke, Helianthus tuberosus. The only ‘Artichoke’ which is in no way related is the Chinese Artichoke, Stachys affinis, which is a member of the mint family, Labiatae or as its known for standardisation Lamiaceae.




There is an irony with Jerusalem Artichoke, its native to the Northern American Plains, prolific in lakes of Canada and reaching Sastatchewan but it does not grow naturally in the lands historically known to us as Judea. I really enjoy slow roasting the Jerusalem Artichoke and have always been a little disappointed that there are no traditional indigenous jewish recipes using it, especially for a plant I had always taken to grow on their soil. However, enlightenment came as to the origin of the Jerusalem Artichoke and sadly for me it was not some mystical story created in the City of Gold, no King David on Temple Mount tucking into a plate of Artichokes, at least not this artichoke, beneath his temple, no it actually is a corruption of an Italian word. Italians referred to Helianthus Tuberosus as the sun-flower artichoke, due no doubt to the small golden flowers it produces. So in Italian Jerusalem Artichoke is Girasola articiocco, Girasola meaning, ‘turning to the sun’.





Joseph Hooker writing in 1897 states, “In the year 1617, Mr John Goodyer of Mapledurham Hampshire, received two small roots of it from Mr. Franqueville, of London. In October of the same year, Mr Goodyer wrote an account of it for T. Johnson, who printed it in his edition of Gerard’s ‘Herball’, which appeared in 1636 where it is called Jerusalem Artichoke. Prior to that is was also called by the same name in ‘Paradisus’ published in 1629. He also gives the reader some recipes, boiled and skinned to be eaten with butter and wine along with baking in pies. He also informs the reader that in some parts they are known as potatoes of Canada, being introduced by the French from Canada and cooked in milk served with beef”.


On a cultivational note, I have found it is best to grow them in the same spot for 3 years and then relocate the best tubers, as left in the same spot they seem to grow smaller in following years. However, the trick here is to be able to clear the ground of the original bed as they grow from the smallest of tubers.


My last ‘choke’ is the Chinese artichoke. I find this is grown best in a permanent cold frame because it seems to disappear over winter otherwise. In china, Chinese artichoke is known as Tsanyungtzu & in Japan its known as Chorogi. It was first introduced in 1888 by Dr. M. T. Masters and is widely eaten in France. Just like Jerusalem artichoke you harvest over winter. A light scrub and a bake in the oven makes for a nice nutty addition to roast potato’s. They are rather too easy to look after, plant in the cold frame, leave them to do there own thing and harvest in winter as needed or you can eat them raw in salads.




Chinese Artichoke on Foodista

Monday, 22 June 2009

Camellia sinensis – A plant that changed the nation.

I am rather fond of tea. It has an addictive quality far above its contents as a beverage, being steeped in exotic, nostalgic and nationalistic history. The plant which produces tea may not be native but I like to think that the customs we have built around the drink made from it, go some way to identifying ‘Englishness’.

The Dutch were already importing tea from China in 1610 at an equivalent rate of £60 a lb of leaf or more regularly at a rate of 1lb sage leaf, which the Chinese adored, for 4lb of tea leaf. Tea was also enormously popular in pre-revolutionary France with Madam de Maintenon being amongst its ardent followers with Louis XIV ordering two investigations into the medical and health benefits. Now it’s a well known fact that by dilating the blood

vessels tea does improve the flow of blood to the brain, a lack of which does cause migraines something I have never suffered thankfully. Rather sadly to my mind like so much of the ‘acienne regimé’ it was lost to the French as they took up coffee.

In Britain, the once great lover of tea, we have consumed huge volumes. Starting out as a luxury item, tea was presented to Charles II by the East India Company at a rate of 50 shillings per pound. At this time imports of tea stood at 20,000lb a year with a cup, porcelain you would hope, costing a shilling in 1706 at Thomas Twining’s Golden Lion in the Strand.

Although around the 1790’s we were using 16 million pounds of tea annually, knowledge of the actual plant was limited to a very few. One of the first Tea plants, Camellia sinensis var. sinensis was brought from China by Dr. James Cunningham around 1702. In Hortus Kewensis, Thea bohea is listed as having been planted by John Ellis in 1768 along with an illustration of the Duke of Northumberland’s tea plant in flower in 1771 at Syon House. Perhaps the most horticulturally important ‘grower’ of tea to us was Carl Linnaeus, who reportedly tried 20 times to successfully grow a specimen. There are many accounts of the misadventures of trying to get specimens to Linnaeus, from plants being eaten by mice on ship to being blown over board but in 1763 two plants were successfully taken to Uppsala where they were grown, enabling Linnaeus to study them in depth. Europe’s first commercial crop of tea came, incidentally in 2005, at Tregothnan over looking the River Fal in Cornwall.

For centuries all tea came from China, this trade was called tribute by the Chinese who refused to converse in any language except Chinese referring to the European traders as barbarians. From our dealings with the Chinese the word ‘cash’ passed into the English language. In the 1840’s whilst trying to set up tea growing in India, Robert Fortune who had collected material in China for the Royal Horticultural Society donned a disguise and returned to China to purchase seed of tea plants. He wanted only the finest seed from the prime tea growing plantations and using his knowledge of Berberis japonica, which he knew only grew in prime tea districts, he told his collectors to bring samples of the berberis along with the tea, no berberis no cash. Cash being the Mandarin word for money. However, for all this hard work the preference for Chinese tea to make plantations in India was soon replaced with the local indigenous species, camellia assamica, for which we have developed a greater taste over time and interestingly is self-sterile.


Tea also had a precarious start in Ceylon and it was only the coffee blight of 1869 that turned a few hundred acres of plantations into the worlds largest exporter for a while during the 20th century.

During the 20th century tea was truly characterised as England’s national beverage. From the strains of high society and the importance of when to add the milk and handle the tea cup properly, to Imperial Britons returning home from dangers abroad being welcomed not by ‘glad your safe’ but ‘delighted to see you, cup of tea?’. During the Second World War, tea cars cheerily went out at great danger to themselves to ensure those bombed out during the blitz could be offered a ‘cuppa’.

It’s from these great heights of affection that today tea seems to be confined for the greater part to a sorry state of ‘dust’ in a bag. I know you can buy leaf tea, ours is procured at Fortnum & Mason, we have a broad selection ranging from Smokey Earl Grey, Earl Grey, Russian Caravan, Rose Pouchong and Osmanthus in our cupboards at home, but sadly when out at a restaurant or, dare I say it, one of the multitude of dull bland high street ‘coffee houses’, I never take tea, generally because it is bland and badly made. What happened to our national love of the drink made by the great camellia, a plant that changed the world, sent men halfway across the globe to discover its secrets or die trying? In 1956 we consumed 10lb per person of tea, today its roughly 4.85lbs annually. On the whole I think I would have joined the five thousand who were secretly being trained to ‘brew tea’ should we have been invaded in the 1940’s, an exercise which would have been as essential to our national resistance as any guns and explosives.

Russian Tea on Foodista

Monday, 15 June 2009

The Ups & Downs

The new office is almost finished. Painting has been expertly carried out and all at once the sheds have taken on a new feeling. Sadly the colour, although 'cotswoldian', of which we have been assured, seems more to resemble the green of pistachio ice-cream in Italy rather than the lush moss colour we were aiming for.

I have been pricking out plants again, odd when you consider we have a nursery! However with great excitement I can report for those who got in touch and asked & for those who did not, that we do have a very limited number of Phytolacca insularis available this year along with even fewer phytolacca chilensis. It initially struck me as strange that the rarer to cultivation P. insularis should be more prolific in germination, I am please however as P. chilensis is native to chile and adds to my current fetish for pokeweed. The other good news is that we have a good number of papa cimarrona, Phytolacca bogotensis available this year. Again its native to S. America and completely hardy and the flowers on this species are pale rose in colour. On the down side we have no Phytolacca acinosa, maybe next year.

The other nice surprise was finding that we have a good number of Origanum syriacum which is a relatively uncultivated Lebanese marjoram. It has densely pubescent, highly aromatic leaves and clusters of white flowers. In Lebanon it has been used in traditional cookery for years and is essential in the making of Manaeesh. However that aside, I think it makes for a very decorative border plant and would look good in grey combinations or white gardens along with being a great foil plant for more 'unconventional' combinations.

If you can take your eyes off the pistachio office, I hope you notice a rather nice Plantago in the top picture.


Saturday, 6 June 2009

Days Out & Days Out

I had a 'Day Out' yesterday which was fascinating. I was telephoned to see if I would like to accompany Michelle from Chris Beardshaw's office on a fact finding mission to look at trees. We set off at 6 am to travel to Bedfordshire to visit two of the leading tree growers in the country, the sheer size of the operations was very impressive. Huge trees 30-ft plus, grown in state of the art air-pots laid out in rows like an enormous chess board.
Not wanting to let this opportunity slip by I took along my camera for any cheeky shots that might arise, or just to take pictures of items of stock I wanted to 'log' mentally for later. There were some stunning pleached Pyrus along with the most enormous pleach Hormbeam I have even seen in or out of the ground.
Lunch was a disappointing, rather tasteless affair curtsey of Sainsbury's, my suggestion here might be, 'Try Something New Today', such as adding flavour to the sandwiches! However, this was more than made up for by the lovely tea (in a pot) and biscuit selection we were offered at stop number two, where again not only was the site immaculate but the scale mind blowing. I took notes furiously of the trees which caught my eye and pondered new and exciting ideas about the instantaneous scale of these wonders. In the picture the lady is holding a 5m fully extended measuring tape to give you an idea of scale. I have made a note of some trees which may make their way to Malvern for my Autumn garden fingers crossed, so all in all it was a rather useful day out.
The other piece of excitement was being asked by the Rococo Garden in Painswick if I would give a series of walking tours around the garden. For those of you who don't know much about the Rococo Garden, it is the last surving example of the short lived Rococo style of garden art in the world. Lately it has become very well known for its stunning displays of snowdrops at the beginning of the year, however it has a rather amazing history and restoration has been ongoing since a trust was set up to maintain it. My walk will last up to 2 hours and we will look at the design history, use of plants and the use of the numerous buildings around the
garden such as the pink and white Eagle House which I have included as a picture for you to help get a flavour of the garden. These walks will take place in June & July this year and hopefully, with the down pours this weekend on my mind, the weather will be rather much better.

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