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Thursday 30 October 2008

Leaf of the Day: The Dwarf Turks Cap and Thomas Drummond

It is still unseasonably cold. I have 3 layers of clothes on and had forgotten how difficult it is to draw fine detail with cold hands but that is no excuse for not getting on with the drawing.

I heard some sobering statistics the other day about "practice making perfect". It seems it is a mixture of some natural talent, backed up with relentless training, that gives people at the top of their game the edge. Violinist Miaxim Vengerov for example has practised his violin for 7 hours each day since he was four. The magic number seems to be ten thousand hours. That is the equivalent of three hours per day for at least ten years. I can't imagine how many hours I have put into drawing in my artistic life but what I do know that some are unproductive and it has to be quite disinclined practice...unfortunately 3 hours a day of scribbling wouldn't quite do! I think I have some way to go yet especially with botanical painting.

This brilliant red berry caught my eye the other day and as fruit is the next assignment for the course I need some practise with shine and texture.
It is the fruit of the pretty Dwarf Turk's Cap, Malvaviscus drummondii otherwise endearingly know locally as the "Sleepy hibiscus" due to the fact that its folded hibiscus like flowers never quite open up completely.

Image from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center here

It is native to Texas but is also a common sight in Florida in alley ways and around wasteland and rambling around gardens. It can be used as a screen to cover a variety of unsightly things and here it has the added attraction of being able to hold its own in the shade of the huge live Oaks. Hummingbirds and butterflies love the nectar which, if you tip the flowers upside down will literally drip out. The young leaves, flowers and fruit are edible, it is called Manzanita" (little-apple) by the Mexicans but as I have only found one berry so far I haven't tried it, but it will be going on my "eat your way round the garden" list.

The variety name of this plant is named for the Scottish naturalist Thomas Drummond, (1790-1835). He was another eminent and tireless collector and recorder who accompanied Sir John Franklin's second overland expedition to Arctic America. In 1830 he made a trip to America to collect specimens from the western and southern United States. In March, 1833, he arrived at Velasco, Texas to begin his collecting work in that area and spent twenty-one months in Texas collecting many species of plants and birds. Drummond had hoped to complete his botanical survey of Texas but died in Havana in 1835. He had suffered some terrible illnesses including cholera and fevers and there is a vivid description of some of his expeditions and the awful hardships that these early explorers endured. If you ever thought that collecting plants was a gentile and even slightly effete occupation, think again. I quote from a fascinating short account of Drummond's life written by his great great great grandson here

"He crossed the Allegheny mountains but contracted a fever which laid him up for ten days in Louisville. He recovered enough to reach St Louis by steamer but suffered a relapse which left him "skin and bone" but still carried on collecting. He then went to Texas undaunted by the brewing of the Texas Revolution and the raging conflicts between Indians and settlers, travelled to Velasco and as luck would have it, just in time to encounter the dreaded cholera which he caught. The same day the captain who sailed with him also took ill and died, all other cases terminated fatally within 10 to 12 hours. He was the only survivor in Velasco making a recovery with no one to nurse him or bring him food "when my appetite returned I was nearly starved for want of food, the few individuals who remained alive being too much exhausted with anxiety and fatigue to offer to procure me anything"Life became no kinder, The Brazos river flooded, submerging the prairies to 15 feet and did not recede for months ( it was called The Great Overflow ). There was anarchy, famine and widespread lawlessness in Texas, but he still found time to send back 750 species of beautiful plants, many of which bear his name. He then navigated an old canoe 100 miles to Galveston Island by himself and wintered there despite incessant rain which lasted for three months.On returning to New Orleans, Dec 1834, he came down with a bilious fever and " such a breaking out of ulcers, I am almost like Job smitten with boils from head to foot" The boils were so painful he couldn't lie down for seven nights. Still sick with fever, he headed home to explore the Florida Peninsular. His last letter dated 9 Feb 1835 was sent from Apalachicola in Florida where he was to embark for Havana. There was no further word from Thomas, Hooker received his personal possessions, along with a death certificate that confirmed his demise.

Captain Franklin described Drummond as " being indefatigable in collecting specimens of natural history, in the course of which service he had been exposed to very great privations. To his perseverance and industry, science is indebted"

After reading this and about his quite horrible experiences in the Canada, my cold fingers are as nothing....shame on me.

The berry I have drawn below is just splitting open. It will split into three segments and have three seeds.. all of which I will plant in honour of Mr Thomas Drummond.

Dwarf Turks Cap, Leaves and Berry

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Leaf of the Day: Miracle Fruit, "Flavor Tripping" and Industrial Espionage

I think I must be the only person in the world who knew nothing at all until now about the odd phenomenon of the miracle fruit, so those bored by its story and tales of "flavor tripping" tune out now.
Today I decided to catch up on some of the backlog of plant names that I have recorded over the last few months and the miracle fruit tree Synsepalum dulcificum was one of them. I have walked past this rather sad little plant so many times, thinking to myself that if it produces anything at all, even a decent leaf it would be a miracle. I have waited for fruit, or a flower or just a bit of general joie de vivre.. but it just struggles on. This morning I thought I would look it up before I went to the gardens and I was not really prepared for such a strange story.

This very nondescript looking plant will produce, in the right conditions, small red berries which are the " miracles" of the miracle fruit tree.
These berries have the curious property of being able to trick your mouth into experiencing bitter or sour tasting foods as sweet. The cause of the reaction is a protein called miraculin, which binds with the taste buds and acts as a sweetness inducer when it comes in contact with acids.

This astonishing fruit was first documented by explorer Chevalier des Marchais during a 1725 expedition to West Africa. Marchais noticed that local tribes picked the berry from shrubs and chewed it before they ate their otherwise bitter and sour foods.
Since then there has been sporadic excitement about its obvious potential but because of its short life span, it will only stay fresh for a couple of days, and seasonal production, it was difficult to develop viable business to any great degree.

Interest was revived in the 1970s and according to Wiki..
An attempt was made in the 1970s to commercialize the ability of the fruit to turn non-sweet foods into sweet foods without a caloric penalty, but ended in failure in controversial circumstances with accusations that the project was sabotaged and the research burgled by the sugar industry to prevent loss of business caused by a drop in the need for sugar. The FDA has always denied that pressure was put on it by the sugar industry, but refused to release any files on the subject. Similar arguments are noted for FDA's regulation on stevia now labeled as a "dietary supplement" instead of a "sweetener".
That is interesting because I have written about stevia ( sweetleaf) and its incredibly sweet leaves before.

Because of these problems the popularity of miracle fruit waned but it is now the subject of a smart-set renaissance with "flavor tripping" parties being held in appropriately smart settings with an appropriately smart clientele who pay $15 a berry and then have a kind of miracle fruit love-in .. I would imagine the word awesome gets a good airing.
According to participants beer tastes like mikshakes, limes taste like sweet oranges etc etc.

Amongst the hundreds of websites, blogs and commercial sites there is one very good and informative article entitled "The Old Sweet Lime Trick" from 1992, by Donna McVicar Cannon here
Here she describes how the "sweet lime trick" was played on
a founder of the Rare Fruit Council, William Whitman,

In 1952, he was being given a tour of the Panama Canal Zone Summit Gardens by the Director, W. R. Lindsay, when they encountered a five foot bush, covered with small, dark green leaves and attractive red fruit about the size of olives. Sampling a couple of the berries, Mr. Whitman found them rather nondescript, and they moved to the next specimen, a Key lime which Director Lindsay asserted was a wonderful and very rare sweet lime. After some urging to sample it, Mr. Whitman tasted this lime and found it absolutely living up to its advance billing—incredibly sweet and delicious. Only after eating several more of these delightful sweet limes did he finally ask for information."
...and the article goes on to outline the various research and development attempts.

There is more about this fruit and others in the fascinating book "The Fruit Hunters: A Story of Nature, Adventure, Commerce, and Obsession. " Go to DemocracyNow website here and read the interview with writer Adam Leith Gollner. I have seen this book at Borders for a while now and leafed through it .. I can feel a purchase coming on.

Its use as something other than party entertainment has much potential in making a wider range of nutritious but sour or bitter foods palatable to us sweet-stuff loving creatures and it is now available as a tablet from various suppliers.

It is helpful as a dietary supplement for diabetics and slimmers but until they find something that makes lettuce taste like chocolate I am probably not that interested. I personally like a variety of flavours but I will be curious to try one and they are readily available as plants and berries here in Florida. According to Pedro someone right here in Winter Park sells them. It would be handy little plant to have on the balcony perhaps?

The one leaf I had today shrivelled up as I drew it, even in these currently chilly days, and I also spent far too long reading about this curious fruit. I am not sure if the little plant at the Gardens will survive but I was glad to see that someone has taken pity on it and given it some fertiliser, oddly enough this little sweetener prefers acid soil!

Miracle Fruit Leaf

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Wednesday 29 October 2008

Leaf of the Day: The Beautiful Mosaic Fig

We are having a cold snap here... very cold. Today there were record low temperatures and a very cold wind. It was only one degree warmer than chilly London! We have gone from wondering whether to put the air con on or to put the heating on, in just a week. Apparently this icy blast is coming down from Canada, and parts of New York state are under 16 inches of snow... I am worried about my tiny seedlings and moved them around the apartment to get a little warmth and sunlight where they could.

But to brighten up my day I have drawn the The Mosaic Fig, Ficus aspera
This is just a beautiful, beautiful tree, and is possibly the most spectacular variety from the huge and varied ficus family which has a plant for almost any occasion and location. This tree grows by the side of the path which runs through the White Garden at Leu Gardens.

The path through the White Garden with the arching branches of the just flowering pompom tree, Montanea grandiflora in the foreground.

This one has attained tree height and is a lovely shape, its branches elegantly incline downwards displaying these exotic and intricately variegated leaves with tiny "figs" nestling between them, as if holding out a gift for your delight. These little figs turn from velvety striped red and green to orangy red.

This beautiful fig variety was introduced into Britain from Polynesia where it grows wild, in the mid 1800's. It was used as a much admired house plant and has a mention as being a "new varieties" prize winner for Messrs. Veitch in The Floricultural Cabinet And Florists Magazine in 1853.
It also went by the name of the "Clown Fig"as early as 1884 when clowns looked different from how we think of them today. I think the comparison will have been mostly to do with the white face and spotted and striped costume. The Victorian clown developed from the Harlequin with the diagonal geometric costumes. They would sometimes have painted red noses and are often pictured with bizarre red tufted hair and red pompoms on their costumes.
Here are the famous Payne brothers who performed in Covent garden in the late 1800's.

Image and more info from the London Theatre Museum here

The large, simply shaped leaves are a wonderful and intricate combination of ivory and greens in a slightly cubed pattern, hence the mosaic name, which often follows the lines of the veins, or, I thought, like aerial views of old neat strip-farmed fields in the UK.
I ran out of time (and patience) to paint the whole leaf..they are big leaves. This is a relatively small one at 9 inches long. The fruit are tiny by comparison, the largest just 3/4 inch.


Mosaic Fig, Figs and Half a Leaf

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Tuesday 28 October 2008

Leaf of the Day: Texas Ebony

I hope to go down to the gardens 3 days this week to make up for last week's bad weather days. Things change naturally there but also the gardeners are always busy clearing, replanting, cleaning up and chopping back. I had planned to collect a few more necklace tree pods, but today they were all gone, pruned back to stalks. The tung oil tree last week had 3 or 4 big pods, today they were all on the ground and mostly squashed. Just one week makes such a difference in the plant world. I can't imagine how many things have sprung up, flowered and gone back to ground without me even noticing.

However one tree I see often near the Arid Garden is the lovely big Texas Ebony which casts a deep shade and has a hopeful seat beneath it, but few, if any, ever take advantage of it. It is another large tree with tiny leaves and like the tea tree oil tree yesterday has similar tiny fluffy scented flowers in the summer.

I had seen some very old pods lying around on the ground for some time, but now there are one or two newer ones and some green ones developing on the tree. Good news for the pod lover here.

The Texas Ebony Pithecellobium flexicaule is a tough drought resistant and handsome tree. The "ebony" name is misleading as the wood tends to be more of a dark mahogany to purple or brown, rather than black. One reason for the lonesome bench is that to get to it, you have to stoop under the branches of the tree which as well as being very dense, are very thorny.
The wood is beautiful, dark and fine grained making it a favourite for woodturners with two colours from the dark heart wood to the golden sapwood.

I do love trees, particularly old trees and often wonder what they have been silent witness to and appropriately there is a famous Teaxas Ebony in Texas at the Los Ebanos (the ebonies) border post which will have seen hopes and dreams on the faces of many passengers crossing the border on the only hand operated ferry across the Rio Grande.

Image and text from the website "Texas Famous Trees" here

"The Los Ebanos ferry is a part of the border that time forgot. Tucked away in the southwestern corner of Hidalgo County this crossing has existed as a popular place to ford the Rio Grande since the days of Spanish colonization. Then like now the summer sound of the cicadas pulsate in the breeze. The hand pulled ferry went into operation in the 1850’s and has seen few improvements since then. The ferry is still tethered by a thick rope tied around the base of a large Texas Ebony tree. And it’s still muscle power that propels the flat bottom barge from Texas to Mexico and back again.
Standing at the southwest corner of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Station, at the southern edge of the little town of Los Ebanos, this immense tree provides tired travelers a shady spot in which to wait the ferry. Around its girth is a one-inch steel cable, which spans the river to hold the ferry.
The history of this crossing is replete with incidents of cattle rustling, smuggling, banditry, and entry of wet-backs. Today an average of about 100 cars pass under this tree each day, carrying shoppers to Los Ebanos or to San Miguel.

And an evocative article describes the ride "Slow Boat Keeps Pace With Times Hand-Drawn Ferry, 21st-Century Security Meet at U.S.-Mexico Border Crossing"
By Sylvia Moreno in the Washington Post 2004 archives here

"The music blaring from the ferry's little boombox is lively, though nothing new or Latin Grammy Award-winning. Just old accordion-laced rancheras, with their tales of love won, love scorned and sorrow soaked in booze.
The ride is short, about five minutes from shore to shore, with six men pulling the rope attached to the ferry so that it is propelled across the brackish river. The three-vehicle barge is known here as el chalan, and these chalaneros have skin toasted brown and palms callused thick and rough. Most of the ferry passengers are visiting relatives on one or the other side of the Mexican border, carrying goods such as freshly made tortillas into the United States or big boxes of baby cereal into Mexico. Soon droves of "Winter Texans," who migrate from up north for a few months a year, will be coming to ride the old-fashioned ferry."

Despite its size, it is still a thoroughly guarded crossing, so any thoughts slipping through unnoticed should be forgotten.

"It's got to be the most secure port we've got," said Joseph A. Mongiello, port director of the nearby international bridge at Rio Grande City. He oversees the inspection station at the Los Ebanos Ferry.
There are a maximum of three vehicles and a few pedestrians per ferry to inspect, Mongiello said, so "we've got all the time to look at them and not worry about causing a traffic backup."

"Even me, that they know, they still ask me the same questions every day," says Melba Martinez, 28, who lives in Gustavo Diaz Ordaz and rides the ferry daily to her job at the one store in this hot, dusty hamlet of about 200 people. "They see me every day, and still they ask me where I'm from and where I'm going."
"I love the ferry, not just because I cross every day, but my mother used to live in Los Ebanos and my father was from Diaz Ordaz, and my mother met my father crossing on the ferry," she said. "I like to say it's because of el chalan that I was born."

According to the Texas Public Radio website from this August, things are still pretty much the same but there is talk of a fence. You can still cross and pull on the ropes to help the chalaneros and re live a little bit of history.. short video too here

These ebony seed pods are not pretty, they are thick and woody but the bright chestnut seeds inside are like little seamed cushions. Nice for beads I am thinking!

Texas Ebony, Leaf and Seed Pod

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Monday 27 October 2008

Leaf of the Day: Australian Tea Tree

After Friday's miserable weather, Saturday dawned bright and beautiful, far too nice to be slaving over a drawing board and we spent most of the day outside. Today was equally beautiful too and we walked for about 6 miles along the Econ Greenway for which I was rewarded with aching legs but a few nice Ear Tree pods, see previous post here.
But today's leaf is from the wonderful Australian Tea Tree, Melaleuca Alternifolia, which is both pretty and useful. I walk past this modest little tree every time I go to Leu Gardens. It grows just by the path on the way down to the lake. I have to admit it is one tree I have put off drawing because the leaves are tiny and numerous but having written about the soapberry and its antibacterial properties, this seemed a natural follow on.

It is pretty and delicate with small needle like leaves growing the length of long swaying branches. In the summer it has correspondingly tiny white flowers and now the delightful seed capsules which are tiny too. This elegant branch has been in the fridge for a couple of days but if you crush the leaves you still get the gorgeous camphor like scent.
The beautiful flaking pale bark serves to protect the tree against fires because although it smolders, it seldom burns and so insulates the interior of the trunk from severe damage.

This is of course the Tea Oil Tree, native to New South Wales, Australia, which gives us the valuable and potent tea tree oil. If you google "tea tree oil" you get 395,000 hits and I don't have time to plough through even half of them for this post. Suffice to say it is well known as a powerful natural topical medicine, the oils containing a cocktail of antibacterial, anti fungal and antiseptic chemicals. It was well known for centuries to the Aborigines in Australia who used an infusion of the crushed leaves as an inhalant to treat colds and for skin conditions and leaves would be sprinkled directly onto wounds. The commercial production of the oils was started in the 1920's in Australia and like the soapberry, Tea Tree oil has been useful for the military as an addition to first aid kits in World War 2 and more recently as a treatment for soldiers in Iraq to help treat leishmaniasis, a disease caused by the bites of sand fleas.
Its most powerful action seems to be anti fungal , so useful for all manner of fungal infections. It can be found in beauty products, dental products, as treatments for head lice and insect bites, flu and colds, acne, MRSA, ringworm, athletes foot, dandruff, warts, and eczema. You can freshen up your home and get rid of musty pet and feet smells with spray made up with a few drops of oil in water.

Like all these things caution is advised! It is strong medicine and should not to be swallowed and usually should be diluted somewhat. There are some very good tips to make your own products on the Web and here is a simple page of uses which seem quite sensible and it isn't selling anything. Go here.

I will be adding it to my Soapberry Suds liquid and I am going to try to make some shampoo too. I will report back.
Because of the small scale leaves they also make nice bonsai!

Images from the Australian Plant Index here

There is another melaleuca, Melaleuca quinquenervia a relative of the Tea Tree, which was introduced to South Florida in the early 1900s to dry up the wetlands but, like many other introduced species, it seems to have run amok in its new home and taken over vast areas of the Evergaldes and is now another on the pest list. They are locally known as punk trees due to the punky texture of the bark. This is a new use of the word "punk" to me, a Brit. I think it means corky or spongy. I am sure someone will let me know.

Now dried up sprig and tiny seeds of the tea tree.

My drawing today is a section of branch, about 15 inches long and a much enlarged version of the tiny seed capsules. They are like little cups with a crenelated edge and the seeds are held in the central reservoir. They are minute and spilled all over my paper as I was drawing them. There seems to be absolutely no correlation in nature between the size of the seed and the size of the plant/tree it grows into. I wonder why? The seeds of this tree are like tiny specs of dust, it is estimated that a kilogram (2.2 pounds) has two and a half million seeds. I think I need to try that bonsai..progress report in about 5 years.

The Australian Tea Tree

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Saturday 25 October 2008

Leaf of the Day: "Soapberry Suds" plus Leaf and Bark

Today has been grey and leaden with intermittent heavy rain. One of those dreary days when you have a permanent headache, a day when you want to be out but have to be in and can't settle. I had earmarked today for my day out sketching but instead had to be confined to quarters. So I set myself the rainy day task of a bit of studio tidying, and some cleaning.
This was made much more bearable as I was using my new homemade soapberry liquid and I have to say it is quite amazing. I made about one litre and put it in an old spray bottle. It is a really excellent degreaser. It does not smell particularly of anything but tomorrow I am going to add some treetree oil to it. This would have an extra antimicrobial effect and smell lovely. I have sprayed it on the work surfaces, washed up with it, cleaned the shower etc .

I am seriously impressed, so I am thinking of going into manufacturing. So on this dreary day I spent sometime designed an exciting label for ..."Soapberry Suds".... my new Pencil and Leaf brand cleaning product.

Here is my product label .......

and matching magazine ad..

OK, I can't claim it to be entirely original but I spotted this wonderful genuine wartime advert for Ivory Soap with handsome bathing sailors, who will now brighten my day ..and with a little customisation made it all my own.

As you can see I only had to change a few things. The advert already came with the "it floats" byline. I have just made a substitution for their Ivory soap, so that the strapping sailor in the foreground can easily grasp my bobbing soapberry nut and to the "it floats" type at the bottom and of course changed the words to carry my very own cleansing message. After all, cleaning up should be fun. Whereas theirs is only "99%" pure mine is, I assure you, 100% pure.

If you would like to know what the original said here is the text.

"Ivory soap had a good many unusual experiences during the war and was found in many strange bathtubs. Perhaps in none did it give more pleasure than in the one mentioned below in a letter written on board one of the army transports:...
""We all had a bath in a large canvas arranged for the purpose a few days ago, about 25 being under the hose at one time. Best of all we had Ivory Soap. It certainly seemed like home to rub in the mild ivory lather from head to foot and then feel the delightful exhilaration following a brisk rub down." "

What a spirited and uplifting sentiment, and fancy one of those sailors having gone to all that trouble to write to Ivory Soap about having a bath with friends. I think that's just wonderful and we need more of it and I think my Soapberry Suds will be just the ticket ...orders taken now. I am thinking of taking a stall next week on Winter Park Farmers Market. I think it will be a hot seller.

(I am wondering if I should have put a warning at the top of this post to protect myself from the ire of the various "phobes" of this world?)

Today I also, with some difficulty, drilled some holes in the seeds. The outer shell is very very hard and I had to rig up a very Heath Robinson contraption to steady the bead involving a putty rubber and a couple of lids of things I found around the house.... but I am very pleased. They are beautiful.
This unfortunately sent me to Michaels to look for some nice additions to make a small piece of jewellery with. I try to stay out of Michaels unless I have a mission as I tend to get stuck. Today I was stuck for ages just pondering the possibilities of combining materials.

However I did finally get round to drawing, and my last look at the soapberry for now is a leaf and a sketch of the bark. The bark is beautiful dark green and pale bluey green. Quite lovely.

Soapberry Leaf and Bark

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Friday 24 October 2008

Leaf of the Day: Buckeyes and Conkers

Question: What are these mad people doing?

Answer: Taking part in the World Conker Championships of course!

I really had not expected to encounter a chestnut tree at Leu Gardens and I would not have seen it, if a big glossy brown "conker" had not landed at my feet a couple of days ago.
But of course this is not really a chestnut but one of the Buckeyes. The confusion arises because it looks like our "horse chestnut", but that isn't a real chestnut either. Both are from the Aesculus family whereas the true chestnuts are Castanea.
I am not sure if this is a Yellow or Red Buckeye but the leathery husk of the nut is smooth, not like our spiny horse chestnut. I had not considered the name before but of course, it is obvious that the beautiful brown seed is like the liquid brown eye of a deer.

Donald Culross Peattie writes about the yellow buckeye thus.

" Country folk have named this tree for its big shiny brown seed which with the large pale scar upon it has looked to them like the eye of a deer. They are seeds pleasing to look at and satisfying to hold but there is a poison on them...yet with this bitter principle removed the very starchy seeds are both edible and nourishing The Indians roasted the nuts among hot stones thus loosening the shells, peeled and mashed them and then leached the meal with water for several days -. Thus there was left to them a highly nutritious meal. The presence of the poison however serves to make the seed useful in another way; bookbinders prefer above others a paste made of its starch since it is not eaten by the insect enemies of books.

This little tree growing near the lake at Leu has just a few "conkers". Are they called conkers here in the USA? Do they play conkers here? I haven't had chance to ask my American friends here yet.
Only last Sunday the World Conker Championship took place in Ashton near Oundle in the UK and for anyone who does not know, the object of this ancient ( well, 200 year old) game is to shatter your opponents conker with your own super-hero conker. There are rules, mostly about not hardening your conker in vinegar before the game, which is considered the height of cheating.

Here is some history from the World Conker Championship website. here

The game of conkers probably evolved from a game called ‘conquerors’, which was originally played with snail (conch) shells. A variant of the game was later played with hazelnuts, on strings. By the 20th century these earlier games had almost universally been replaced by the version we now know using horse chestnuts. There are, of course, many regional variations in the rules of the game and it has also been known by different names. In parts of the Midlands around Worcestershire it was known as ‘oblionker’ (pron. obly-onker) and play was accompanied by such rhymes as ‘Obli, obli, onker, my first conker (conquer)’. The word oblionker apparently being a meaningless invention to rhyme with the word conquer, which has by degrees become applied to the nut itself.

I have two buckeye conkers. Chris and I will be playing a needle match later. We will be starting the game with the throw of a dice. Whoever wins the toss will start the game loudly proclaiming
'Obli, obli oh, my first go.'
This will confirm all the worst suspicions of our neighbours about "the Brit couple".
Mine is of course soaking in vinegar as I type.


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Thursday 23 October 2008

Leaf of the day: Soapberry, The Dark Side

Continuing the fascinating study of the soapberry tree, I now come to the ageing berry. It now becomes a dark and mysterious object with a black seed rattling inside. As it shrivels up, the berry case blackens and dries out, eventually disintegrating to leave the hard black seed exposed. These seeds are beautiful and vary from matt black to blue black to reddish black. They are very hard and quite weighty and feel cold, like a stone bead, so it is not a surprise that they are used for jewellery. They are sometimes known as black pearls and were used by Buddhist monks for rosary beads. (And yes I will be having a go myself, once I have made the soap.) I picked these up from the the ground beneath the tree, nature having obligingly hulled them for me.

I did mention that Soapberries are slightly poisonous and on fish the saponins are particularly quick acting. Indigenous peoples around the world have used "fish poisoning" as a way of fishing for hundreds of years. Apparently the toxin acts on the respiratory organs of the fish without affecting their edibility, and has the effect of temporarily immobilising them, allowing fishermen to gather up the stunned fish as they float to the surface. It is good to know that those who escape and find themselves in unpolluted waters can survive and live another day. It may seem unsporting but if you are hungry ..?

I have said before how much I admire nature's design, its ingenious engineering and elegant structures. The design of the barred section where the "lid" fits is fascinating. Unfortunately I don't yet know the correct name for this part of a plant or understand how it develops or from exactly what part of the flower. In reality it is a fragile and delicate structure which becomes more pronounced as the berry dries out and seems very often to be the first part to decay completely. It reminded me of the barred visor of a medieval helmet, or to drag me out of the 15th century, Darth Vader..

I had no idea, before I looked for a handy image, that so many replica helmets were available to me. It would cut quite a dash on my cycle rides but I guess no one would turn a hair here, assuming no doubt that I had just escaped from Disney for the day.

Soapberry, Old Berries and Pearl

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