It is February already and true winter is circling but has not yet gone in for the kill. It has been like this for a while now. The threat can be felt in the odd sugarcrystal morning or the ink-stained clouds that build at sea and come crashing in slow motion over Υμηττός (Mount Hymettus). There were days in January that were raw and numbing and even snowy but it does not feel terminal yet, as winters always do. There have been hail and flash floods, thunderstorms and damaging high winds that send my mind spiraling with worry for the tenders, softies and needies of the garden. So far my hysterical imaginings are entirely disproportionate to the amount of damage actually caused. Nothing has been cut back by frost and nothing has been washed away. Some leaves and dead branches where battered to the ground but it is really only the exposed succulents that bear any significant scars of winter weather and these are from the hail storm. The cold moments have been few and interspersed with periods of warm, muggy weather. This tepid weather with skies like a viscous cabbage soup has outweighed the cold stuff by a long shot. This makes me uneasy because I know, firstly, that this is some big action climate change and, secondly, that when winter stops playing at killing the mouse it will reign frozen and steely on us all. Sparoza will become a garden full of ghosts as we bundle the tenders, softies and needies up in bubble-wrap and fleece.
Here are some photographs of the big snow we had in January. Our friend Ιάσωνας (pictured) came to help me cut down and dispose of all the nests the processionary caterpillars build in the pine trees. For those of you who are not familiar with this critter let me enlighten you. Thaumetopoea pityocampa larvae live communally in big silky nests and come out at night to feed on the needles of their host. When they are ready to pupate they march (or proceed, if you like) in single file, head to tail to the ground where they bury themselves in the earth. The moths fly in late Spring and are rather plain. Why, you may ask, do we dispose of these apparently unassuming filial beasts? Well, the larvae can defoliate an entire tree. This will weaken it and make it less likely to withstand other attacks, drought etc. Furthermore, the caterpillars and, as far as I know, the adults are covered in hairs which are extremely irritating to the skin of all animals. Some even have severe, even lethal reactions. Hence, there are few natural predators for the beastly things, meaning that they process amok causing pain and distress to fauna and flora alike.
When we had that freak snow in January I freaked too and wrapped the two Agave attenuata in enough fleece to keep them almost literally steamy but when the sun came out we unraveled our mummy-agaves again. On the weekend we had a freak hailstorm so, though they are warm, the agaves look pretty mistreated. Agaves are evergreen and rosette-forming, producing new leaves at the centre and taking a long time to lose their old ones. They come from the higher altitudes of central Mexico and are, apparently, relatively scarce in the wild. Being immigrants from a non-mediterranean-climate region, they have some trouble aclimatising to our extreme climate here in Attika. They must be shaded from the harsh sun of summer and protected from frost. The hail-storm was sudden and there was not a chance to protect the plants. Though they have, so far, survived the evils of Greek winters and summers, our two little foreigners will bear their battle scars forever.
I have just returned from Cornwall where my family and I celebrated the life of my Grandpa and supported one another through the realization of our own lives without him. Loss is cumbersome and making clichéd symbols out of the weather and plants is easy. I have been away from the garden for a week and before I went I felt heavy and stagnated with the anticipation of what was to come and so saw those attributes in my surroundings. Everything felt like it was taking an age to change, the garden was beautiful but it was halted and muted in its beauty, stuck in its shades of green. Today, upon my return, stupefied from traveling and aching from the sad loveliness of everything I was met with a show to match my welling feelings and tip them into regeneration. My eyes have been washed and shined clean and my vision of the garden was one I have been excitedly awaiting – more flowers!
The Iris unguicularis are in full bloom. The flowers can vary from violet to lavender and are held, singly, on fine stalks among the narrow pointed leaves, looking like jeweled pebbles caught in the spines of an urchin. There are many clumps of this low-growing, mound-forming Iris throughout the terraces of Sparoza, hiding inside the green cages of shrubs, lounging over pathways or instating themselves as centerpieces of perfect garden vignettes. This plant has many personalities and is therefore a very agreeable resident for any garden space. One of the first jobs I shared with our Thursday volunteers was to clear away the dead leaves from the clumps of I. unguicularis by combing through the clumps with our fingers. To my inexperienced eyes the clumps seemed desperately crowded but Sally assured me that the display in winter is so extraordinarily rich that separating them is unthinkable. I can now safely say that the Iris have proven her point.
Other plants which I impatiently checked every day for signs of change are our single Rhodanthemum hosmariense, Styrax officinalis and Cyclamen persicum. Both the Styrax and Cyclamen are amongst the reproductions of gorgeous botanical paintings by Elektra Megaw that adorn the walls of my room but I had never seen performing in the flesh. Finally they have satiated my need to see and feel them.
The Cyclamen is the biological parent of all the giant gaudy cultivars one sees in Greek florists and is far superior to any meddled product. It is marvelously simple and very generous with its flowers which are lightly scented. Each petal twirls in place and the magenta tinge at their base is one to desired for a lipstick.
The Styrax is a deciduous shrub with dark green leaves that are felty-grey beneath. The flowers are also perfectly simple, waxy white and drooping slightly. I think my favourite attribute of this shrub is its stems which are clad in flaky cobwebs.
The Rhodanthemum is one of the plants sent to us by the nurseryman and botanical explorer Olivier Filippi and it has been given a home in a very visible spot. Since I planted it in October it has prospered and each of its little shoots has produced a very stylish, black and white, scaly terminal bud. These are excruciatingly slow to open and I found myself openly shouting and gesticulating at it. As you can imagine, it took its own time anyway. The result is exactly what I wanted; a sturdy, chunky daisy with the most radiant white petals and yellow centre. Just think what it will look like when all the flowers are open! I am so excited about these plants; I cannot sing my praise for them enough!
Some things have passed and I am very sorry for it. The Rhus lancea, for example, had a very short period of orgiastic bee attention. The minute green flowers are held in innumerable loose panicles and are so alluring to bees that the tree becomes electrified with their buzzing. So excited do the bees become that they literally roll about in the flowers that have littered the ground beneath the tree. On sunny days (in the rain the bees’ emotions are dampened – apologies for this poor joke) I was afraid to pass beneath the tree, testament to some primeval instinct, in case the bees got defensive and chased me away. This never happened, either because they are generally very amiable characters or simply because they were too loved up to notice me. As the experience of me, bee and tree was so brief and invigoratingly scary, it is only after it has passed that I have come to realise that it described a seminal moment in my experience of nature, all things coming together to form an entirely alive moment. This happens often at Sparoza; more to come on this.