A weed is in the eye of the beholder (ouch!)

Japanese anenome upright100 Day Project #22: Japanese Anemone

In a temperate climate such as ours, it’s a fine line between easy-to-grow and noxious.  Many a tender, coddled European import has gone rogue on our shores with devastating environmental effect. Gorse, I’m talking to you, but not just to you.

Indeed, you’d have to be a little cautious planting something experienced gardeners have described as ‘thuggish‘.   When warnings blare that in order to remove a plant, you will have to dig up every fragment of root or face reinvasion, it’s wise to consider the impact of your planting decision in advance.  I’d never knowlngly introduce ginger, tradescantia, asparagus ferm, or some forms of bamboo.  I wouldn’t want to plant anything which features on the Council’s noxious or invasive plant list, and if my property bordered a wild or native area, I’d be even more concerned about ‘escapees’.

But a plant that is invasive to some is also rather ‘beguiling‘ to others, myself included.  The Japanese anemone has much to recommend it: the vigorous rosette of leaves, the graceful stems reaching almost a metre in height, the delicate nodding flowers in pink or white and the perfectly round seedhead in bright kelly green. If it’s important to you to have ‘picking flowers’ in the garden for as many months of the year as possible, the Japanese anemone always seems to have flowers when others don’t.

It also has an interesting history.  Although it was grown in Japanese gardens for centuries, it is Chinese in origin, “Hupehensis” from the Hupeh province in Eastern China.  It was ‘discovered’ (as far as Europe is concerned) by an English plantsman in a graveyard in Shanghai and introduced to England in 1844.  Gardening maven Beth Chatto was a fan. With its five sepalled form it forms part of the wider Ranunculaceae family which includes buttercups, delphinium and clematis.

As the Japanese Anemone has managed to behave itself reasonably in my garden, I’ll continue to grow it despite the horror stories.  It knows it’s on notice.

Have you got a soft spot for a dodgy perennial?


Would a vegetable by any other name taste as sweet?

Red Capsicum Upright100 Day project #20: Capsicum

Couldn’t you just eat by name alone?  Certain foods just sound like poetry: pomegranate, artichoke, celeriac, mandarin, broccolini, coriander are music to my ears and twice as appetising as they might otherwise be.  Equally appealing is anything that sounds sumptuous in French such as mille feuille, bearnaise or creme brulee.

On the other hand ‘Kohlrabi’ sounds like a skin condition and I grow cauliflower (which sounds like some kind of  birth by-product) only because I can plant the purple one, and call it ‘Violet Queen’.  She’s very pretty too.

Despite their superfood status, their fine flavour and their glorious indigo colour, I sometimes struggle to enjoy the Maori Potato Urenika because of its other name ‘tutaekuri’, which most school children will know means ‘dog poo’.  Talk about your truth in advertising!

Consider then the simple capsicum.  How is it that we come to call it by its Latin name while most of the rest of the world simply calls it a ‘bell pepper’?  I do feel the ‘proper name’ gives a sense of dignity and history to this satisfyingly sculptural vegetable.

I appreciate the capsicum not only for that full-on burst of primary colour but also because they are so damned expensive at the moment, and one of the things I find it hardest to grow.  They take a long time in the sun to ripen, and I’m not always that strategic in my planting.  Note to self on that.

Of course the capsicum is a salad standard, either in crunchy slices or grilled with its skin removed.  Jamie Oliver blitzes a jar of chargrilled for his sausage pasta 15 minute meal.  But on dark winter nights I love to eat capsicum cut in half and roasted gently, packed with half a skinned tomato, an anchovy, some capers and a glug of olive oil.  The other day I tried them with green sicilian olives and a slug of balsamic vinegar and found myself greedily content with the result.


8 ways to look after yourself

Broccoli upright

100 Days Project: #19 Broccoli

Sometimes the nurturers have to do a little self nurturing, right?  Because if we don’t do it, nobody else will, and everything just tends to fall apart.

Self nurture is not self indulgence.  It’s a simple case of ‘put on your own oxygen mask first’.  And it’s your one way ticket out of martyrdom, possibly the least attractive state known to man or woman.

These eight ways don’t work for everybody but they are tried and tested and they do work for me.  I’d love to know what you to to shake the glums and re-energise.

  1. Eat something fresh and colourful:  Even a minor setback often has me ratting around in the cupboard for something, anything, sweet.  You know where this goes don’t you?  Sugar-based mood swings, a fatigued kind of energy drop and general self loathing.  But grab a beetroot salad, an orange, some nuts or even a boiled egg and be rewarded with an energy boost, extended satiation and a disgustingly virtuous sense of self satisfaction.
  2. Stop, breathe and feel: Check in with yourself.  Take a second away from your desk, your trolley or your two year old. Take five even breaths and identify what emotion you are feeling.  Observe your feelings accurately without judging.  Things shift.  I don’t know how it works but somehow it does.
  3. Get your hands in the ground: It’s not everybody’s idea of fun, especially in this appallingly wet winter but it’s called ‘grounding’ for a reason. My cuticles don’t like it either, but after half and hour of getting up to my elbows in the dirt, the grey clouds lift a little and I can see the sun peeking through.  What’s that feeling? Oh, it’s ‘happy’!
  4. Make something:  Anything.  A painting, a poem, a story, a gift, a meal, a promise, a commitment.  Express yourself and know you’re alive.
  5. Clear one small ‘hotspot': Don’t try and declutter your whole house (take it from me, that’s a recipe for disaster)  But we’ve all got a ‘hotspot’ or two where the keys, mail, permission slips, pins, odd shaped pieces of plastic and the dog’s lead all tend to collect.  Usually there are 15+ items on my kitchen bench which belong somewhere else.  I feel better when it’s clear.
  6. Help someone, anyone:  Lift a pram on to a bus or a walker down the stairs, help with change for the parking meter, distract the fractious toddler in the supermarket queue or ask someone ‘Are you OK?’.
  7. Walk: Just put on your coat and go.  In five minutes you’re getting light, oxygen, fresh air, movement, incidental exercise, nature, peoplewatching opportunities, community and a whole new perspective.  Just walking with a friend is lovely too.
  8. Hug someone for more than a minute: OK now I sound weird, but bear with me. Ask permission or just grab and hold!  Sons may need to be bribed, husbands, not so much.  It might sound a bit odd but sometimes it’s just what everybody needs.  Some are quietly breathing, heartbeaty hugs, sometimes they are giggly, wriggly ones.  What’s not to like?

Even in the first world, and even when we are grateful for what we have, daily life does present its share of challenges.  Facing your own reality sometimes requires identifying and calling on your own personal mood lifters to fuel up and go forth.

How do you look after yourself?

Acacia Pod

Acacia seed pod100 Day Project: #18

Another Waiheke find, I think this is the seed pod of an acacia. But there are a number of poddy species it could be and I would stand happy to be corrected!

I do love the little rounded hollows where the seeds sit, nestled in place until they are dry and ready to be deployed on a mission to perpetuate the species.

Yellow lipped shell

yellow lipped shell100 days Project: #17

This little shell painting is for my husband who found it for me on the precarious piece of beach between Oneroa and little Oneroa on Waiheke. At certain times, if you’re not very fast, you will end up drenched.

This shell has lips of a sulphur yellow which is particularly displeasing to me, I won’t even have this yellow in my garden (yellow dahlia I’m talking to you).

But he found it for me, so it stays.

Solstice Flight

featherFeather: 100 Days Project #15 

Winter Solstice is a spiritual time for many cultures. It is both a celebration of survival and the peak at which we begin the long, slow slide toward spring.  This year, the shortest day has stormed in and flung the door open, rending seawalls and toppling giant trees in a fearsome demonstration of the shifting forces of nature right across our country.

Snug and warm in our house we have the luxury of appreciating the force and our good fortune, to drink endless cups of tea and eat hot crumpets with liquid honey.  In past times the cold and wet would have been fatal to the young, the old and the badly protected, which would have brought a particular significance and poignancy to the solstice celebration.  And as the participants in the Big Sleepout would tell you, there are plenty of people right now for whom the extreme weather is not an exciting diversion, but a significant and present danger.

The Maori celebration of Matariki has been revived in recent years.  A celebration of the heliacal rising (morning reappearance) of the Pleiades, Matariki was a time to remember those who had died in the last year. But with crops harvested and seafood and birds collected it was also a happy time. for singing, dancing feasting and kite flying.

For us, this is also the day when we think most about my paternal grandmother Ruth.  Reading yesterday’s post my father Peter sent me this recollection of the day she died, on Winter Solstice, exactly 35 years ago today:

Ruth accepted her death and appeared to manage her departure in a spiritual way. Harold, sleeping in a nearby room at the hospice, was woken by a pealing clamour of bells. Going into the corridor, he met a Mercy nun leaving Ruth’s room, telling him her ordeal was over. There were no bells.

Driving out to Macandrew Bay the following night there was a huge full moon and the highest tide I have ever seen in Otago Harbour. No cloud or wind, it flooded right up to, but not over, the road.

On her easel was a small and unusual painting. A small boat is waiting to depart into a brilliant sunset. I recall a myth about the soul leaving in this way. Ruth’s signature is clumsy due to swollen hands.


Does the apple fall far from the tree?

Braeburn square Braeburn:100 days project #14

than 30 years after her death, my grandmother Ruth Haydon Duval-Smith remains one of the most influential people in my life. It’s hard to explain why.   We lived quite distantly and saw each other infrequently.  Yet all this time later, thinking of her can bring tears to my eyes.  It took me years to realise that she would not have died disappointed that I had failed to answer her last letter.

Ruth taught me how to identify shepherd’s purse and fuschia, morning glory and alpine strawberry.  She knew how to create a tiny mauve umbrella from the flower of a scotch thistle, a trick that even now, I have no idea how to recreate.

I could tell a pied stilt from an oystercatcher before I turned five, simply by our observing together at the water’s edge on the Otago Pensinsula.

We made afgans in a blue Kenwood mixer, cross-stitched on gingham and created elaborate paper cutouts from a yellow and black hardback book I still have today.   We read Thornton Burgess’ Reddy Fox and Old Man Coyote, Ernest Thompson Seton and the frightening Victorian Struwwelpeter. We read Rackham’s Brothers Grimm, the Snow Goose and the Snow Queen, the black and white illustrations of which she had coloured herself, in an act shocking to my younger eyes.  Her Morris and Liberty fabrics lodged themselves firmly in my pattern consciousness.

It’s difficult to know what kind of a relationship we might have had if she had lived longer, but I would like to think that our shared interests would have endured.  I find that even in some of my modern decisions, my feeling for what is right is rooted in a sense of her, and in particular her connection to Anthroposophy and the natural world.

DUVAL-SMITH, Ruth, ca. 1920-79 Dunedin, view from Queens Drive watercolour on paper: 360 x 237mm (sight) Given by Professor F.N. Fastier, Dunedin, 1980

DUVAL-SMITH, Ruth, ca. 1920-79
Dunedin, view from Queens Drive
watercolour on paper: 360 x 237mm (sight)
Given by Professor F.N. Fastier, Dunedin, 1980

Publically, she was well known as an accomplished watercolourist, specialising in South Island landscapes, one of which is held in the Hocken Library.  I have some on my walls today.  I also have a small brown vinyl notebook in which she pencilled the prices paid for some of these lovely works, heartbreakingly low by today’s standards.

Ironically, it was precisely her talent which created in me the odd idea that I would never be able to paint, let alone in ‘her’ medium of watercolour.  Somehow, I absorbed the idea that watercolour is a precise, difficult, unforgiving form, intolerant of error and hidebound by a number of arcane rules about equipment, paper treatment and colour order.

To my complete surprise I have found out that quite the opposite is true.  It’s fast, Great, I’m impatient!  It’s portable.  Excellent, I like to carry it with me!  If you don’t stretch and tape your paper down it warps and creates strange blotchy runbacks in that paint.  I particularly like that.  My painting is nothing like hers.  Doesn’t matter!

For me watercolour is primarily an expressive and emotional artform, not an intellectual one.  It requires a relinquishing of a certain amount of control.  You can see this in some of the more Steiner influenced works Ruth made, which were not made public.

One of my favourite things about the medium is that you never know quite how it’s going to turn out, which makes for surprises.   Like many of us today, in this thinking age, my life to date has been overwhelmingly brain-led.  It’s such a relief to go somewhere where thinking doesn’t matter, only creating.

I think my grandmother would have understood this.

NOTE: My father has supplied the following biographical information:

Ruth was born on 21 May 1915 and died 21 June 1978. After schooling in Gisborne and Levin, Ruth studied at the Elam school of Art for one year, but was unable to fund further training. After raising a family she studied under H.V. Miller in Dunedin. South Island landscapes were her love and watercolour her medium. Her skies are particularly beautiful.