THE SILK FLOSS TREE

Ceiba speciosa or Silkfloss tree

This is the flower of a most beautiful and exotic tree, it is called the Silk-floss tree or in Latin Ceiba speciosa . It is a deciduous tree that belongs to the mallow family.  A native of South America I have watched it growing and flowering here on Gozo and what a delight it has been, at first to see the beautiful yellow and cream flowers – though for some reason some of the flowers on this tree turned out to be pink, then to see the flowers wilt and one by one fall off to expose the fruits, and today when we walked in that area again I saw the fruit fully grown and some had burst to expose their fluffy white silky material.  It was only hard to reach high enough to get good photos, so these will have to do.  While doing some research on this tree I realised that it is not from this species that kapok is produced, namely this white silky fibre, which as children our pillows were filed with. This made me more determined to look up as much information as possible, it heightened my interest in this tree species. Of course it is always interesting to learn what the uses are of any plant or tree. I learnt that the kapok is produced by another Ceiba, the C. pentandra, this species is found growing in the tropics, it does not grow in Malta or Gozo as far as anyone I have asked knows.

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So going back to the C.speciosa our local Silk-floss tree, I noticed the other day that there are fruits or seed pods to be seen. And then I found this white fibre underneath the tree, it was as close as I could get to see the texture. White, fluffy and silky is how I would describe it and the seeds are embedded in this white fibre. I now know that it is not the real kapok. Though the fibres of the C.speciosa can be used in a similar manner as those of the C.pentandra. The C.pentandra is cultivated in South East Asia for its seed fibre. I also found that kapok is the lightest natural fibre in the world, with a density nearly five times as light as cotton. I read that this fibre was used in the design of the first life jackets because of its buoyancy. As a child I remember seeing kapok, feeling it, and found that it was quite dense actually. Something tells me that it is not used much anymore these days, you never hear of it being used, maybe because it is highly inflammable. I also seem to remember that while it was lovely to have natural fibres in our pillows, it did become lumpy quite quickly, so maybe it just isn’t a practical material for today’s needs.

In my research I then came across the Red Silk Cotton Tree, Ceiba Bombax. Also from the family Malvaceae. What is used from this species are the unopened flower buds, they are called Marathi Moggu and are a fragrant spice indigenous to south India’s Chettinad region, used in its regional cooking. They also go under the name of Kapok Buds and are roasted to bring out their flavour. In Thailand they are traditionally used in curries.

A fruit hanging down, and one of the flowers well passed its blooming time, fallen on the grass. C.speciosa

Photos below, here can be seen the seed pod and some of the fluffy material, also a seed pod that fell off the tree before it matured.

 

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Some more facts are: The flowers of the Ceiba trees are an important source of nectar and pollen for honey bees, although apparently they are often pollinated by bats. http://www.iisc.ernet.in/currsci/may252005/1679.pdf
Native tribes along the Amazon River harvest kapok fiber to wrap around their blowgun darts. It is grown commercially in some countries but to harvest and separate the fibers is labour-intensive and done manually so it is probably another reason why it is not very popular anymore. Then it is also difficult to spin.
Another use I read about is the oil that the seeds produce, this is used in manufacturing of soap and sometimes it is used as a fertilizer.
I guess this is about all I found out about the Ceiba tree, the three different species that I examined a little. Only one of them I found growing in Gozo. (C.speciosa). One mature tree, at least some years old, but close by I found a very young one that has been planted by the council. Nice to see this.

I am on such an exciting and interesting journey here, getting to know more about the native plants, the rocks, the trees, the agricultural practices, the people (Gozitans) and their traditions, the vernacular architecture, and then sharing some of it via my writing.
I would like to thank you for reading some of my story.

 

MEETING WITH THE OMBU TREE

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While here on the island of Gozo I have been taking note of and enjoying the trees unfamiliar to me. It is nice and interesting to find out what they are called and then to search on Google information about their uses, growth, country of origin and so on, it keeps me quiet busy at times. Then I will take many photos of all the different attributions, leaves, flowers, seeds, seed hulks, shoots, trunks etc. And of course I like to share this in my blog, my blog is after all a celebration of all the earth so generously has to offer to us and to life itself. And so here goes, I hope you enjoy.


The Ombu tree, or to give it its proper name the Phytolacca dioica L. is an attractive tree. I found it growing in the area of Ghajnsielem along the main road. I was amazed to learn that this tree is actually an evergreen shrub that can become quite old and grow to look like a rather large tree. I became fascinated by the beautiful glossy dark green leaves, looking very healthy and growing very vigorously out of the trunk. Apparently the more you cut it, the more fiercely it grows. Its trunk is a soft spongy wood, the rings are loose and not at all like proper timber rings. It is resistant to fire and drought and this is due to its many trunks which store water very efficiently in its large base. Its sap is poisonous. The Ombu is a South American relative of the pokeweed (P. Americana) It is indigenous to Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, there it grows easily in the wild, and it is there that it manages to survive on the pampas. Put to good use because of its large canopy it shelters both animals and humans alike, but is especially good for the many cattle and so is of agricultural value.

Being a dioecious plant it produces male and female flowers on separate trees. The flowers are greenish white, little and many on one long spike. The fruit is green and is clustered in a bunch together, I see both flowers and fruits on the tree at this time (November). To date I have not myself seen the seeds but believe that they are brown, small and glossy. I shall be on the look out for them just to find out.
I learnt that extracts of the Ombu have Antifungal potencies which would probably make it interesting to Naturopaths or to pharmaceuticals.
Some of its uses are:
• Fodder – leaves are used as fodder in time of drought.
• Medicine – infusion of leaves has been used as a laxative, but don’t take my word for it please.
• Hot drink – locally the leaves may be used as a hot drink. (I am not planning to try it out myself not being sure of what the result will be).
• Soapy juice – containing salts of lime and potash.
• Shade in regions where other trees won’t grow – in the pampas it is the only tree that will naturally grow and provide shelter.
• Bonsais – something I did not know is that it is an ideal tree to grow as a bonsai, nice to know!
• Dyes – juice extracted from the berries can be used as a source of dyes.
• Berries – apparently the berries are eaten by birds as they are not affected by the toxin as the seeds contained within the berries passes through the bird intact.
I also read that in South Africa Ombu is treated as an invasive plant, possible because it grows so rapidly. Here in Gozo there is more and more emphasis on the growing of indigenous trees and plants, and eradicating to an extent the growth of invasive plants and trees. This is, of course, a tendency all over Europe these days. I am not sure at which time the Ombu tree was introduced in the Maltese islands and why, I wonder if it was introduced because of the high temperatures in the summer months, the drought some years, and the lack of tree cover in general.

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I looked up a bit more on the antifungal activity which extracts of the Ombu can provide. Here is a link to a paper.
The antifungal activity of saponin-rich extracts of phytolacca dioica and of the sapogenins obtained through hydrolysis.
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/45826292_Antifungal_Activity_of_Saponin-rich_Extracts_of_Phytolacca_dioica_and_of_the_Sapogenins_Obtained_through_Hydrolysis
I also read through the following information ‘Oyama Bonsai Kai Ombú “Tree” by Pierre van Rensburg, which I enjoyed and found very interesting.

I hope you enjoyed this little bit of information on the beautiful and interesting Ombu tree which in fact is not a tree at all. I for one will enjoy twice as much when I am passing these trees in the knowledge of all its good uses.
And finally what I would like to know but could not readily find an answer to is whether the water stored inside the Ombu tree’s large trunk can be used in case of water shortage by cattle or people, or is it already juice in which case it is toxic? I would say, it is juice and it is toxic so it cannot be used. If anyone can shed more light on this please do.

THE NIGHTS ARE DRAWING IN

I cannot believe that yet another week has passed by! Cooler now and the leaves are turning multi-coloured, while some are twirling lazily off the trees, and covering the front garden with a brown rustling carpet of glorious scented autumn!

I’ve been busy over the last few days and I know that I have quite a bit to catch up with – blog entries of friends that I follow, eventually I will get to read all. The reason why I got so busy is that I started an online course with FutureLearn, this time with Trinity College in Dublin. The course is called ‘Achieving Sustainable Development’ and it takes us through four of the 17 UN development goals. As a start we examined goal 16 which aims for the elimination of all violence as a basic for the establishment of sustainable development. Both physical violence, structural violence (embedded in social structures of inequality), and cultural violence (where traditions condone direct or structural violence. So covering the whole area of peacebuilding and peacekeeping. I found this very interesting because I run around (like so many of us)trying to work out how we can help to bring about world peace. The way that this course works is, it gives a video of an interview, in this particular first week different professors were interviewed on conflicts in Kosovo, Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland, and Colombia. Links are provided to other reading material (lots of it), and then we students write our thoughts on what we learnt, there are students from all over the world taking part which of course makes for an interesting dialogue. It is so thought provoking! Tomorrow is week 2 and we will be looking at SDG 3 ‘Challenges to Health’. I’m looking forward to it.

And at the same time it is only another eleven days before we leave to return to Gozo, after a visit to Norfolk to see Ian’s family first. I’m totally packed and organised, all that remains for us to do is see family and friends and that is always a pleasure. Two days ago my daughter, and the children took me to climb a hill overlooking much of the area here, we saw the sea and the patched fields and meadows. It was beautiful – though the climb nearly killed me. I will share some photos with you all.  In a way it is a sort of farewell to the area here – for the time being.
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An ancient stone wall covered in moss, everything was covered in moss, the trees, walls, ground, different types of mosses, very nice and green.
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As we came above the tree level it became quite windy, the kids were running up and down like mountain goats, exploring and discovering creatures and all sort of things growing. Ferns, heathers, mosses, fungi, and they even brought me clear water from a little stream to show how fresh and clean it looked.

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The view was spectacular once we were on top of the hill where a lone cross was keeping watch.

So beautiful.  One thing puzzled me and that is the higher we went to more wet the soil became, I think that the soil is peat as it was pure black in colour.  Walking down was actually harder in a way than climbing up, we were all ready for a nice cup of tea.  Luckily the weather was sunny and quite beautiful really.

After all of that, the cobwebs were out of our hair, that is for sure.

 

SEAWEEDS OF THE IRISH COAST

Yesterday saw a whole bunch of us interested folks going to explore the arboretum at Ardnagashel in Glengarriff, West Cork, but apart from admiring the wonderful trees we also received lots of information on the seaweeds and lichens along this stretch of coast. Ardnagashel was established by the Hutchins family and it was as part of the Heritage Week of Ireland that these activities took place, in memory of Ellen Hutchins (1785-1815)who was a remarkable Irish Botanist. The talks on the lichens and seaweeds were given by Howard Fox, who is the State Botanist (National Botanic Gardens) and by Maria Cullen. This ‘life’ introduction to the seaweeds and the lichens of the coast of Bantry Bay was so very interesting. a true first introduction in this field for me. Later in the afternoon Madeline Hutchins (Ellen’s great great grand niece) took us through the forested area of this garden and introduced us to some wonderful trees, among them an enormous Japanese Cedar (Cryptomeria japonica). But more about the trees in another blog.  Now to concentrate on the seaweed for a start.  There is so much information that I took in yesterday and research I want to do on this that I feel delighted (because it’s right here at my doorstep), but I am also a bit overwhelmed because so far in my life I have been concentrating on enlarging my knowledge about wild plants, flowers, insects and spiders of Ireland.  Now this is taking it one step further with looking at lichens and seaweeds.  There are no days enough in the week to enjoy all this abundance of nature, and to do the research.  Needless to say I am a huge amateur in all this. (an enthusiastic one).
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So we learnt that there are three types of seaweeds and they are divided by their colour. These are the greens, reds, and brown seaweeds. There are about 10 000 species.  This particular species is called Fucus serratus L.  (Serrated wrack).  This seaweed is used commercially in the manufacturing of cosmetics and seaweed baths.

Photo on left is Knotted or Egg Wrack (Ascophylum nodosum) with another seaweed growing parasitically (it gets its sugar from the Knotted Wrack) on it, it is called Polysiphonia lanosa. Maria Cullen (right photo) told us to nibble some of the parasite and to me it tasted only like….sea water!  Maria gave us great demonstrations of a variety of seaweeds which she picked straight from the sea there.

Duileasc (Palmaria palmata) a red seaweed, and Nori (Porphyra tenera) and another one of the Wrack seaweeds (Fucus) .

Top right photo is a calcareous red seaweed, Howard is here showing and telling us about the Sea Spaghetti (Himanthalia elongata).  The book I am giving attention to on the right is an excellent cookbook with lots of information on the edible seaweeds.  I bought it for my son-in-law once and he was very pleased with it.

DSCF2696The coast of Bantry Bay is rich in seaweeds, and it’s beautiful too.

Nori seaweed, Laver (Porphyra tenera) in the top left photo is paper thin and edible, much used in countries like Japan of course.  The green seaweed is sea lettuce (Ulva lactuca).  The book on seaweeds looks real interesting and essential if seaweed foraging and identification is taken seriously.

DSCF2706Microscopes and strong magnifying glasses were all available for us to have a look through.

More samples laid out for us to check out and learn about, far more than I can identify right now.  Further in the water there were even more types of seaweeds to be seen.  Howard and Mary never tired of explaining to us all the details, it was such an interesting hour spend on a lovely and warm Saturday afternoon in this beautiful part of Ireland.  My brother Johan and his wife Lorraine who were visiting Glengarriff, were among those interested and it was lovely sharing this time with them too.

THE BEAUTY OF ESSEX – HENHAM VILLAGE

The village of Henham lies in rural England, in Essex.  We visited there a few weeks ago to see Ian’s delightful grandchild, daughter, and son-in-law.  For me it was also another first visit of the village and area and I loved it.  Like I have seen in many English villages they are picturesque and peaceful, with many original houses intact or restored, and this village has a great deal of that to show.  Above are; left: The old Village school building, right: a sign for the Cock restaurant, and underneath: the village church.  This village church has six bells, I heard them (love the sound of church bells).  There is a lovely write up with photos and a sample of the bells ringing on this website:  http://www.henhamhistory.org/StMarysBells.html

Listed buildings, some with thatched roofs, timber framed cottages some with casement windows, some of the cottages I recognised from the Henham website, these are Friar’s Cottage (above right), Cedar Cottage (above).

It was also early spring, and we made a long walk along the fields and roads, there was plenty new growth to be discovered.  The Blackthorn was in full bloom, the wild Chestnut tree just about to start opening its flowers, but I was sorry to hear that some of them were due to be copped down because of a disease.  The Hazel already had its catkins, and the weeping willow already its leaves.

Some of the wild spring flowers which were a joy to behold and plentiful.

Henham as a village dates back to pre Roman times, there is mention of it in the Anglo-Saxon period, saying that at that time the village was described as the little clearing on top of the hill.  Apparently Henham is one of the highest lying villages in Essex.  For more about the history of the place and the parish please visit their website at: http://henhamhistory.org

Certainly England has a lot to offer in well preserved historical buildings, it’s delightful to discover this.  It was of course a delight to be taken for this long walk around part of the village and surrounding fields by Susie and Jared, and a very energetic little Phoebe.  Thanks again for showing us such a nice welcome, lovely to share time with you.

 

 

“Does the walker choose the path, or the path the walker?” ― Garth Nix, Sabriel

Well today we choose the path, at least we thought that we did, together with my daughter and four of my grandchildren, all of us girls we choose to take a walk in Dromillihy Forest, a walk that led us to the freshly opened bluebells which carpeted the forest landscape in between the deciduous trees. A wonderful view to behold! The girls were climbing the lower branches of the larger trees and excitedly looked for the fairy houses hiding between the ferns and mosses. The children love the forest, love the leaves in autumn and everything else in between. I’m also a tree lover, even hug them, we all do – it feels good. Here the trees are often covered in ivy and moss, also in beautiful lichens. We were touching the moss today and it was as soft as feathers, or silks with a lovely springy feeling like marshmallows. My youngest grandchild, she is only two, choose me as the darling of the day and held my hand right through the walk, we ran down the hilly paths she laughing out loud, a real nature child she is. All the children love nature. We discovered Wood anemones, violets, and other little spring flowers. The scent of the bluebells though was fine and delicate and spread itself all around.
It is the highlight of being back in Ireland, activities with my grandchildren, and chats with my daughter.

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THANK YOU FOR THE ROSES

Yes, thank you for the roses, the beautiful sweet scented wild Irish roses that have been planted along the road, the link road in Skibbereen. What a foresight the town-planners had when they decided on what to plant along this road, the shrubs too are interesting and lovely, but most of all I love this time of the year because of the luxurious roses, what a delight for the eye and much nourishment for the mind and soul. I went for a walk today along this road and back through North street, I found more roses along a stretch there too. Could not resist illustrating this blog entry with full sized photos (phone pics)  just to feast our eyes on these roses.  Please enjoy this blessing.

“And the shower of roses spun around me, inviting me to take part in their ever-present waltz.”
Gina Marinello-Sweeney

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THE BEAUTY OF MALTA

Soaking up the sun while staying in this fishing village in the South of Malta. Lots to see and lots to write about, but all my energy has gone into actually enjoying things that come our way; so far it’s been on the sea, the warmth of the sun, the local people, the seafoods and the amazing, most beautiful limestone buildings. All I can share right now are photos. In a minute I am off to document a procession here at the local church, something truly local and belonging to the people of Malta, that I want to witness. But I will be back with more stuff.

And some more photos.

A WINTER GARDEN IN CAMBRIDGESHIRE

During the very early spring days of 2016 I had the privilege to visit a beautiful garden in the South-East midlands of Britain, in Cambridgeshire.  I received kind permission to use photos and information here in my blog from the lady who is the creator of this marvellous garden.
What appealed most to me was the way the eye was led effortless through a variety of colours and textures, shrubs, purposely dried flower heads, trees and their undergrowth, borders, arches, hidden corners, effective hedging and ornamental pebbles, trellises, wooden fencing, all making this garden into a whole that works, and that even in winter can, with ease, hold the interest of any visitor.

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The hydrangea arborescence Annabelle,  and the dry grasses here add some lovely beige colour in stark contrast to the evergreens.  The Iris Unguicularis flowers give a magnificent bright blue among it’s own rather dull foliage.  The Gold Dust Variegated Aucuba, looks indeed as if it has been dusted with gold, it is a lovely subject.  The spiky foliage of the, what I think is a Cordyline australis Variegata, but I could be wrong because I can’t rightly remember the name I was given, highlight sharply the more rounded subjects around it.  I enjoy such a variety of shapes and patterns.


As you walk through this lovely arch you have entered into a grassy area where you will find a variety of trees and even some hidden corners, the undergrowth at this time are made up of colourful daffodils and snowdrops. You also enter a very organised and productive vegetable plot, all of it sheltered from harsh winter gales by the high fencing and the trees.  I found jasmine climbing along the hedgerow here, not quite flowering, but that must give a lovely scent in it’s season. Everything in this garden. as in the general area, is ahead of it’s time this year, I’ve heard so many people say this both in Ireland, and also here in the UK, blossoms are well ahead, the magnolia flowers are almost open. Daffodils are blooming gloriously.
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There is more to say and show about this lovely garden, but I could not load anymore photos, I want to talk about the ornamental shrubs and flowers in the borders, among other things, so I will follow this blog entry up with another one. I hope you enjoy as much as I do.