November 2016 Notes from the Garden Shed

The gardens team (plus anyone else we could find to help) have been busy planting bulbs for the spring. This is one activity that really shows that gardeners have to think and work seasons ahead. These days, the choice of bulbs is wonderfully wide, enabling us to have something flowering from January to May. Beekeepers recommend that you plant large-flowered crocus to give early flying honeybees a boost. These days, suppliers helpfully print a bee logo on the bulb packets to show which are good for pollen and nectar. We only choose insect-friendly varieties.

There are three plants that really define winter here in the UK, taking on a special significance for many of us over the holidays. I’m talking about three evergreens - holly, ivy and mistletoe - but I’m also going to add a bird that wonderfully ties them together.

Let’s start with the holly tree. They can grow to a height of 15m and live for 300 years - not the biggest of trees but they give some welcome green through the winter months. They can be found growing right across Europe and north Africa, even as far east as western Asia. Everyone knows that they have spiky leaves but look closely and you’ll see these are only found on the lower branches, higher up the leaves are quite smooth. There are many cultivated forms with a range of leaf and berry colours.

Holly is dioecious, which means that you have male and female trees, with the red berries only found on the female trees. The small flowers are white with four petals; they provide nectar and pollen for bees and other pollinating insects. Caterpillars of the holly blue butterfly, along with various moths, eat the leaves, including the yellow-barred brindle, double-striped pug and the holly tortrix, so a very useful tree for wildlife. 

Ivy is said to have been Vincent van Gogh’s favourite plant... although I’ve not seen it in any of his paintings! It’s a plant in two forms – the classic ivy-shaped leaf while it climbs up just about anything, then a much smoother spear-shaped leaf in a floret when it flowers, which it only does after eleven years. The flowers that open in autumn and early winter are very rich in nectar and pollen, and much-loved by just about every insect as a final feast before the cold sets in. Birds disperse the greenish berries that turn black when ripe.

Thirdly, mistletoe - probably the strangest of the three, being a parasite on trees. It’s mostly noticed in the winter once the leaves have fallen away from its host tree, exposing a rather bushy mass high up in the branches. It comes with quite a burden of myth and fable. The druids were supposed to cut it with a golden sickle. I think everyone knows about the kissing thing, but did you know that after each kiss a berry should be removed so that when they’ve all gone there is no more power to allow stolen kisses? 

This is where the bird comes in - the well-named Mistle Thrush. Mistletoe has extremely sticky berries, which the thrush loves, but being sticky the bird must wipe its bill on a branch to rid itself of the inner seed, thus spreading the plant to new hosts.

The Mistle Thrush is also known for vigorously guarding the berries of holly trees in winter, to prevent other birds from eating them. The thrush also likes the berries of ivy – so this bird probably disperses all three of these species – two by eating the berries that pass through its gut and one when it wipes its bill clean. 

Finally don’t be downcast with all the bare trees now that the leaves have fallen; try to love the beauty of them in all their architectural wonder. I’m particularly thinking of a weeping silver birch tree I know that shimmies in the wind – lovely!

Happy winter tree shape spotting!