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 ABORETUM AT ARDNAGASHEL

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The second part of the guided tour of which I took part, it being part of the Heritage Week, was last Saturday’s visit to Ellen Hutchins gardens at Ardnagashel. Though quite overgrown, and in the sub-tropical climate of Glengarriff, in the South West of Ireland, a very lush garden, we did see a great variety of trees.  Many of them quite new to me.  Walking under their expansive canopies one becomes aware of the magnificence of their beings, our heads were constantly held high and apart from the sounds of wow and oh, the explanations of our guide, and the whispering of the leaves, the forest was quiet – the trees majestic!

One of the most impressive species in the gardens is this extraordinary large Cryptomeria japonica elegans or the Japanese red Cedar.  Its feathery leaves are so delicate.  The red brown bark peels in vertical strips, as can be seen in the photo below.  It is said that the wood is very scented and used in manufacturing of light furniture.

These are photos of the cork tree (Cuercus suber) these trees give us the cork which is used in so very many different ways.  The small tree in the middle bottom photo has actually died from the frost one year, but the large one that is standing between many other species survives and has grown very big.  Actually cork is a renewable source as when the cork is taken from the trunk it will regrow.  It is harvested about every ten years.

This is the Myrtus apiculate, closely related to the Myrtle tree.  It was introduced as a decorative tree but it soon became a very fast growing invasive weed.  The wood looks nice and is put to use when cut down for a variety of fencing and a little bridge was made out of it too.  It is not native to Ireland.  It gets beautiful white flowers.  Below is a photo.

Myrtus apiculata

This tree has had its roots growing on its trunk, the reason why is because the soil around it was so crowded apparently by the suffocating growth of the Myrtus trees that there was no space for its roots to grow underground (we were told by our guide).

A variety of interesting looking trees of which I am not sure what they are exactly.

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One of my favourites, again I do not know what its name is.  A trunk covered in moss!

Ferns were everywhere, including a few tree ferns (Dicksonia Antartica).  Ferns even growing on the branch of this large tree.

Rhododendrons grow very well in this part of the world, often giving a lovely display of purple along the roads of Counties Cork and Kerry.  But in Glengarriff one is able to grow quite exotic types of Rhododendrons, from the regions of the Himalayans.  Very large leaves (as my brothers is showing) and most beautiful flowers, whites or delicate pinks, among other colours.  Some of these types bloom already in January.  Besides Rhododendrons there are a variety of Magnolias, Ammonias, Camellias and Acacias growing in this garden.

Three other fabulous species.  The top left is a Griselinia Littoralis.  The one underneath I thought is the Cypressus macrocarpa.  The trunks of trees on the right I cannot identify – ideally I will visit this garden again and become more familiar with all the trees, something to look forward to I think.

Sequoia Sempervirens - Coast Redwood

This tree, again if I am right, is the Sequoia sempervirens (Coast Redwood tree), it was pointed out to us that it was growing here. A tree of the Cypress family.  It is an endangered species.

A beautiful and interesting walk it was, wetting our appetite for more that is for sure.  This garden also contains the Davidia involucrate or Handkerchief tree but I did not see it this time.  It has plenty of Vagus Silvatica (common Beechtrees) growing too.  As I already mentioned the climate in this part of Ireland is sub-tropical, very mild and wet winters, mild summers.  This garden is lying along the coast of the Bantry Bay.

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This is a list of the trees found in the garden.  The list was compiled by John Bevan and can be found here:  John Bevan’s article

And here is a link to the WordPress site of Ellen Hutchins (Botanist) and the Ardnagashel Estate.  There is a lot to explore on the following blog link, I hope you enjoy as much as I did to explore this rich heritage.

Ellen Hutchins – Ardnagashel Estate

 

 

HAWTHORN – THE SACRED TREE

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That I am writing about the Hawthorn tree is because the other day while sitting around the table talking, my mind drifted away at seeing our Hawthorn laden down with its beautiful blossoms gently being carried up and down by the wind, this tree is probably the favourite in our garden, mainly because it chose to grow in that very spot all by itself some years ago.

Crataegus monogyna, or common Hawthorn tree is very wide spread in the South-West of Ireland. A nice tree or bush it is especially beautiful in spring or autumn because of its profusion of creamy white blossoms and or dull red berries.  The tree or bush is often used in hedgerows or as a boundary of land or property.  Its Irish name is Sceach gheal. The flower has five petals, one style and numerous stamens with pink or dark anthers. 

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According to folklore the hawthorn was the most likely tree to be inhabited or protected by Faeries.  In Ireland these trees were considered sacred and could not be cut down for fear of attracting some fatal misfortune, even the branches or flowers could not be brought inside a house. 

http://treesforlife.org.uk/forest/mythology-folklore/hawthorn/  excellent article by Paul Kendall

Many people would refer to the leaves of the Hawthorn as ‘bread and cheese’, they would eat them.  I’ve tasted them myself often and they are ok.

Another good website where I found lots of information on the lore of the Hawthorn is:

http://www.plant-lore.com/217/hawthorn/

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About the scent of the flowers I also found it interesting to learn that in Teutonic lore, Hawthorn symbolized death and was used in funeral pyres.  It’s not altogether surprising because according to some sources;

Mediaeval country folk asserted that the smell of hawthorn blossom was just like the smell of the Great Plague in London. Botanists later discovered that the chemical trimethylamine present in hawthorn blossom is also one of the first chemicals formed in decaying animal tissue”.  (Paul Kendall)

And hence in times when people would have had their loved ones laid up after dead inside their home, they did not want to be reminded of the scent of death by bringing the Hawthorn flowers into their houses, it is thought that from this the superstition originated.

I’ve always found the scent of the flowers strange and could never say that it is sweet.  But the flowers are very beautiful, being from the Rose family – Rosaceaethey are white, sometimes with a hint of pink.  In the town of Skibbereen we also have two mature deep pink trees but I think that they are cultivated species, beautiful to look at, not sure of their medicinal qualities though.

From the berries one can make a tasty liquor and a jelly, and from the blossoms wine can be made.  Some years ago I made a Hawthorn honey, I used ripe berries (the berries taste tart) and a good quality honey, when ready I used it all winter to good advantage.  Even just making something totally different in the culinary way was just such a joy.  The jelly I made many years ago, my mother always made it too and it was delicious, apparently the berries contain a lot of pectin.  So nice to know that we can use natural and wild produce all around us.  It is known that the berries can cause irritation if ingested, the little seeds need to be removed in order to avoid this.  I think one has to be careful with this, I’m not recommending anything, let each one do their own research.

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Some of the ideas I got from the following website;

http://www.witchipedia.com/herb:hawthorn

We would drink a cup of the tea made from the flowers and leaves to strengthen the heart and lower blood pressure or cholesterol.  My mum always used to say that this tea was also used during the war when China tea was hard to get by.  During the First World War the berries were used in Germany as a coffee substitute. 

The birds also do enjoy the berries, our tree is always full of birds, from sparrows, to finches, to blackbirds, it is a wonderful sight to behold, and of course we always leave plenty of berries as their winter food.  The flowers are known to be very attractive and beneficial for butterflies.  The tree is also native to Ireland which is quite important, more and more importance is given planting native trees these days.  The fact that it is widespread in hedges means that hawthorn also plays an important role in supporting the many species that live in and around Irish hedgerows. 

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Our own tree is now mature and it gives us shade during the summer months, lovely to sit under it and share a meal with friends or family.

There is more to be told about the Hawthorn tree, much more, remains it to be said that I love this tree and that it gives us a lot of pleasure.  I hope that all my lovely readers and followers of my blog have enjoyed some of the story that I have shared.

“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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WISHPERING TREES

“If you reveal your secrets to the wind, you should not blame the wind for revealing them to the trees.”  Kahlil Gilbran

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Trees have always been my among my best friends, I love the feel of being near to them, their scent, their whispering, rustling of leaves, the first buds opening in spring, their beautiful and delicately fresh young green filtering the first rays of the warming sunshine. So much about trees talks to me and inspires me. But I also like to know their botanical names, their medicinal uses, and their importance in the landscape and to the earth. I’ve been taking photos of trees here on Gozo, but obviously I am not familiar with most of them. Some of the trees that came to my attention a lot here are the Olive and the Carob tree, two most lovely trees that produce health giving and delicious fruits. The Eucalyptus grows here too, I’m quite familiar with this tree as it grow in Ireland too.  I know there is a lot more to learn and explore about trees on the Maltese islands, something to look forward to next winter.
I’m just going to add photos to my post as I am still working on identifying and looking up information on the tree in my pictures.

Foto above are a row of Aleppo Pine  Pinus Halepensis (Siġra taż-Żnuber/Siġra tal-Prinjol)

20170305_151310Bark of above Aleppo Pine

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More photos of the above Aleppo Pine.

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Young shoots.

Strongly scented sticky resin, and some of the open cones to the right.

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THE SCENT OF ALMOND BLOSSOMS

The Almond tree is in full bloom by now, at least those in sheltered places are and it’s a delight to the eye and the senses, their scent being subtle and sweet. To see these blossoms to me is just wonderful as it is something totally exotic in my book and my imagination is heightened merely by the beauty of this happening.
Great writers and philosophers have been inspired by the blossoms of the Almond tree. Here is a quote by Nikos Kazantzakis, from his “Report to Greco”
“I said to the almond tree, ‘Sister, speak to me of God.’ And the almond tree blossomed.”

And from his ‘Saint Francis’: “When an almond tree became covered with blossoms in the heart of winter, all the trees around it began to jeer. ‘What vanity,’ they screamed, ‘what insolence! Just think, it believes it can bring spring in this way!’ The flowers of the almond tree blushed for shame. ‘Forgive me, my sisters,’ said the tree. ‘I swear I did not want to blossom, but suddenly I felt a warm springtime breeze in my heart.”
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The Almond blossom has inspired literary and artistic people through the ages it seems. Van Gogh painted it beautifully and often when he was in Southern France, for him they signified awakening and hope.

Almond blossoms have been used in legends in countries like Portugal, and in the bible there is mention of them too in several place.
The Almond tree was first cultivated in the Mediterranean about 3000BC. It is said native to Syria and Palestine. Almonds were carried on the trade routes by the Greeks, Egyptians and Romans.

According to Greek mythology the Queen of Thrace, Phyllis was turned into an Almond tree by the gods.
I will never forget myself the rapture when watching a movie called ‘Venus’ which made good use of Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture, at some point, during the performance of this opera the pilgrims chorus, which to me is the most beautiful part, the staff of a pilgrim starts to blossom, it was an Almond blossom, it was a stunning moment, never left me since.
According to the book: “Myths and Legends of Flowers, Fruits, Trees and Plants” by Charles M.Skinner, branches of the Almond tree are used to find hidden treasure.
Here is a link to the book, and there you can also read a summary of Wagner’s Tannhauser story and how the Almond branch figures in it.
https://archive.org/stream/mythslegendsoffl00skin#page/40/mode/2up

I was not really aware of the fact that to me also the Almond blossom has great significance, but it has, and to see the blossoms here on Gozo opening up over the last few weeks has delighted me beyond words.

 

SUMMER SHADOWS

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“It’s like living in a light bulb, with the leaves
Like filaments and the sky a shell of thin, transparent glass
Enclosing the late heaven of a summer day, a canopy
Of incandescent blue above the dappled sunlight golden on the grass.”
From John Koethe’s ‘Sally’s Hair’.

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Breakfast under the Hawthorn tree is such a summery pleasure, birds singing in the trees all around us, what a beautiful start to the day.

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Today I was inspired by the shadows of some trees along the road to town, what I saw reminded me of some of the impressionist painters like Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, Paul Cezanne, and others, also more modern painters like Marc Hanson or Terri Ford.  I have always loved the way these guys painted the shadows under the trees, and indeed I love walking under trees during sunny weather for the same reason, the sun playing among the leaves, the shadows in all shades of grey, the dappled sunlight interesting and playful. The shade under the trees giving perhaps cooling to an overheated brain.

How I wish I could paint these shadows, and that light.

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