parks and gardens

What better time of year than the date season to pay a visit to an arabian garden?

First comes water, the giver of life:

without which the sun's magic  rays just burn...

without which the sun’s magic rays just burn…

And next comes Phoenix dactylifera – the date palm…

the main cash crop...

the main cash crop…

… from which a bounteous harvest

varieties to suit all tastes

varieties to suit all tastes

…and artistic palettes

a calorific crescendo

a calorific crescendo

But man cannot live by dates alone…













and to re-sharpen the taste buds…



… and something for a refreshing cup of tea!

Wild mint

Wild mint

Closer to heaven in a garden.



As surely as the short northern summer passes through my garden, fall must surely follow…

creeping autumn

creeping autumn

But we give thanks to the bees (and others) who laboured long at my apple tree to provide the promise of rich pickings in the season of mellow fruitfulness.



Sadly, Quixotree will miss the harvest, having already migrated south in search of warmth…

The Cambridge University Botanic Gardens welcome everyone (for a very reasonable entrance fee) with a combination of a beautiful english garden, a little (not too hardcore) education, and a wealth of fascinating trees. Highly recommended.

Cambridge University Botanic Garden, 2

Here are a few favourites from a recent visit.

A little education…

for grown-ups

for grown-ups

...and for the younger generation.

…and for the younger generation.

and for the more nerdy?

and for the more nerdy?

Plus of course, beautiful vistas

city centre tranquillity

city centre tranquillity

and wonderful specimen trees

miniature pine

miniature pine

More to follow another day…


ARAB NEWS, 6th September 2012 (syndicated from Associated Press)

Ever since I was a child in England I have loved conker trees.

I don’t suppose it’s still true in these multi media days, but for lads (and sometimes lasses) of my generation the conker tree was instantly recognized, and in the summer months we passed the time watching conkers grow and trying to coax them from the tree long before those wonderful shining chestnut orbs were fit for combat. I can still remember the joy of summer car journeys interrupted in Dorset lanes so that I could linger for a while to scoop, hook or knock the playground currency from the lumbering bent boughs of the mighty chestnut trees. Later we would pickle them for strength, leaving them in dark dusty jars in the garage for the winter. Of course they were long forgotten by spring. Presumably patient fathers quietly disposed of them while we sat at school desks, or watched Blue Peter on dark chilly spring evenings.

summer quarry

The horse chestnut, Aesculus hippocastanum, is a striking tree. Across Europe it’s a stately favorite in parks and large gardens. In England it was introduced in the late sixteenth century, and by the eighteenth century it was a popular feature as part of the man-made landscape in the parklands of country estates, and also to mark the boundaries of larger properties. It can grow to nearly 40 metres, a large tree by english standards, which once mature sends huge drooping boughs towards the ground for children to swing and climb.

under the greenwood tree

In May its bright white flowers, in the form of panicles up to a foot in length, lift english spirits with early thoughts of summer, and bucolic reminiscences of country cricket matches and cattle ruminating in its shade. It has become part of the very myth of Englishness. As an urban feature its smaller cultivar, the Red Horsechestnut (Aesculus × carnea: crossed with a Red Buckeye, Aesculus pavia) decorates city streets with similar, but red, panicles. This tree is particularly popular in Germany, where it’s been a feature for nearly 200 years. I remember it brightening many business trips to Frankfurt in the 1990s.

red chestnut blossom

The horse chestnut is a foreigner to England, and to most of Europe. It’s a native of the Southern Balkans – Albania, Macedonia and Northern Greece – but its popularity has carried it across the temperate world in the last three hundred years. Although a fairly useless tree in economic and domestic terms (the conkers are slightly poisonous and cause sickness both to people and horses if eaten) the beauty of its form and flowers has sent it far and wide as a shade giver and eye-catcher. In England, at least, it doesn’t easily self propagate, and its height and bulk make it unsuitable for smaller gardens and restricted urban spaces. (Hence the use of the smaller red cultivar in German streets). As I know from personal experience it is relatively easy to grow from the conker, but much more difficult to find good homes for it once it reaches its flower pot limits.

For several years now I’ve noticed how early the chestnut leaves turn brown and shrivel – often by mid July in England. I’ve been compelled to share these observations with my long suffering and (understandably) tree-deaf family, and I had wrongly assumed that Aesculus hippocastanum was an early faller. I had obviously forgotten my long summer holidays seeking the (too young) shining orbs under deep green foliage.

But now, courtesy of Arab News – not usually a source for tree updates – I’ve been shown the error of my assumptions. Those beloved conker trees are under attack from two different aggressors: the leaf mining moth, Cameraria ohridella, whose larvae feed on its leaves; and a nasty bacterium called Pseudomonas syringae pv. aesculi which causes a disfigurement (and ultimately death) by “bleeding canker”.

The moth was first observed in Macedonia in 1984 but apparently took 18 years to reach England – presumably assisted by the increasingly global inter-connectedness of human activity. By destroying its leaves so early the moth robs the tree of essential sunlight time during the summer months, and may also make it more susceptible to the the second attacker.  A UK Forestry Commission survey of the bleeding canker conducted in 2007 concluded that ” All regions [sampled] had some symptomatic trees and overall, 44% of the trees inspected in the rural environment and 55% of the urban trees displayed symptoms of the disease… The level of symptomatic trees were (sic) especially high in south east England”.

I do not know what, if anything, can be done, or is being done, to save the horse chestnut. A BBC web-page offers this rather forlorn long term advice: “General advice includes trying to plant trees of local provenance, as research shows that specimens grown from local seed stock are best adapted to local conditions, and have a better resistance to pests and diseases”.

The accountant in me knows that cash-strapped Europeans have more important priorities right now than saving a few useless conker trees. Ironically, a Western Europe without this beautiful traveller would – in a purely technical sense – be a more natural landscape than one which is dotted with foreign imports.

But somewhere deep within me the child and poet pushes the accountant aside. How could we not lament the passing of these beautiful and iconic trees?

When George Dubya famously confused Slovenia and Slovakia there were probably some wry smiles among the liberal cognoscenti, but who can really blame the man for failing to distinguish two small countries, neither of which existed in his schooldays?

My knowledge of Slovakia is limited to a one day bus-trip from  Vienna across the Donau/ Danube to Bratislava. I’m sure it’s a wonderful country, but I’ll leave others to extol its virtues.

Slovenia, on the other hand, is a place I’ve come to love since first encountering it – almost by accident en route from Croatia – nine years ago. And as it only celebrated its twenty first birthday this year I feel privileged to have known it for so long.

Slovenia’s most photographed tree

So, after nine years of this continuing love affair, which I’ll be re-kindling just one one week from today, here are nine woody snippets to whet your appetite (and mine):

1. Outside the arctic circle, Slovenia is the most wooded country in Europe, making it a tree lover’s dream holiday destination. More than half (59%) of this small country is forest. Much  of the country is covered by beech forests or by mixed beech (fir/beech or beech/oak). 54% is deciduous and 46% coniferous.

2. In addition to its national parks, regional parks and nature parks there are 286 “Natura 2000” designated protected areas  – 36% of the country’s land areas, the largest percentage among EU states.

3. Seventy four per cent of Slovenia’s forests are privately owned and managed on a small scale, averaging only 3 hectares, and often sub-divided into even smaller units.

4. According to data from the middle of the last decade there were over 300,000 private owners, which means that at least 1 in every 7 Slovenes owns a little piece of heaven.

5. Government forestry sites report that this “major fragmentation of forest property, the number of forest owners and co-owners, present a serious obstacle  to professional work in private forests, to optimal timber production and utilisation of forest potential”. Hooray!

6. Each year, the forests create another 7.9 million cubic metres of wood, but the local logging industry only manages to cut around 3.7million cubic metres. Hooray!

7. There are 12, 624 kilometres of forest roads. Hooray!

8. The Kocevje region in the south of the country, with its unique Karst landscape,  is 90% covered by forest, and includes 6 of Slovenia’s 12 stretches of primaeval forest  – once a land of brown bear, wolf and lynx.

9. As far as I can tell, there is only 1 arboretum in Slovenia. I wonder why?

It has taken me 9 years and the discovery of WordPress to understand and express just exactly why I love this beautiful country so much.


I want the place exclusively to myself, unspoiled by the ravages of mass tourism.

A Saudi colleague returned this week from a holiday in London.

I felt obliged, as a former resident for 30 years, to ask him whether he enjoyed it. Of course he did. He loved the museums, the theatres, the streetlife and the walking. He loved the cooler air of North West Europe. The tubes were crowded and the roads congested, prices were outrageous and olympic preparations in full swing, but he and his wife had a wonderful time.

But most of all he enthused over London’s marvellous parks and green spaces. So many lovely areas set aside for the pleasure and relaxation of its citizens. It couldn’t happen in many cities, he lamented – too many powerful interests grabbing land for its development value. How wonderful for Londoners and visitors to enjoy the beauty and tranquillity of those special places set aside for their daily use.

London’s Green Park

And his enthusiasm has inspired this post. He has a point. The British are a self-deprecating bunch, always ready to dismiss their merits and dwell on their (neighbours’) failings. London is a marvel which the locals are all too ready to discount, but its green spaces are truly a source of pride and celebration.

This month’s olympic city is one of the greenest capitals in the world, with a multitude of open spaces. At the last count, there were more than 3,000 parks and open spaces in the city. Even the oldest part of the metropolis, the “Square Mile” which traces its street plan back to Roman and Medieval times, has oases of green sewn into the fabric of the stone.

As London basks in the Olympic limelight over the next few weeks, here are three little tasters of my favourite escapes gleaned from the quieter moments during 30 years of hustle and bustle. Where else could you enjoy not just trees, but everything from Aerobics to Zoos and Deckchairs to Dinosaurs? And remember, for each one I’ve chosen a thousand more are waiting to be discovered…

1.  St Paul’s Churchyard

Take a break at the very heart of the old city to enjoy the office workers finding time for a sandwich and the tourists seeking new angles on some very well photographed architecture. Relish the red London buses passing just a few noisy metres away, somehow muffled by the pigeons and roses. Don’t miss the splendid Gingkos hidden away at the North East corner of this little haven  – dwarfed by the massive London planes.

gingkos at St Pauls

2. Greenwich Park

Away from the hubbub of the City, take your binoculars for a morning in Greenwich Park, avoiding the joggers and taking in the panoramic views across centuries of London’s history, from the Cutty Sark and Queen Anne’s house in the foreground, across the Thames to the pinnacles of Canary Wharf, and for vistas away to the Olympic stadium in the North East.

The view from Greenwich Park

Be sure to look out for its famous ancient sweet chestnuts, Castanea sativa

famous sweet chestnuts

3. Crystal Palace Park

Take a picnic and spend the whole day if you venture south to my personal favorite, Crystal Palace Park. It’s a bit of a trek from the centre, but definitely worth the effort.  Why not take the train and enjoy tantalising glimpses of Londoners’ back gardens?

Crystal Palace Park is one of London’s hidden treasures. To take a trip to this hill-side heaven is to journey back into London’s history – it is a Victorian gem. It deserves a post of its own. Travel back to 1853 when the Crystal Palace was dismantled and moved from its original location in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition.

Victorian splendour at Crystal Palace

Alas! You are 76 years too late to see the real thing – destroyed by fire in 1936.

Or let your imagination wander back to 1866, when the park hosted Britain’s first National Olympian Games thirty years before the true Olympics were reborn in Athens. Picnic by the lake, stroll in the avenue, wander in the maze, wonder at the museum, or just sit back and enjoy the trees. But be sure to find your way towards the lower (Southeast) end of the park to meet the dinosaurs!

Victorian whimsy

So if you are lucky enough to be a visitor to London during the Olympic celebrations, or if you are planning a trip at some point in the future, be sure to MAKE TIME to indulge yourself with a dose of green city therapy as a counterpoint to the Urban Rush. And for those of you – like me – who have spent many years in London but are somehow always just a little too busy to appreciate it: DO IT NOW!
… and finally, this is a great opportunity to express a heartfelt thanks to the many thousands of individuals who quietly play their part to keep the metropolis a green and pleasant land. Thank you!

praying for sunny days

Enjoy London, and I hope the sun shines on residents, athletes, and visitors alike in the coming weeks.

So summer is finally with us (with apologies to antipodean friends).

Exams are over, schools are out – or nearly so. Professional colleagues are taking a break, to hotter climes, or cooler, depending on their starting point. City dwellers are flocking to favorite get-away places. The blogosphere is awash with travel snaps and the anticipation of routines escaped, littered with “out of blog” notices. In short, wealthy first world northerners are indulging in their annual flight-fest.

Many seek the sun, flocking south “in their million hordes”. From the cold, the wet, the dark, drawn to the sunlight – moths to a flame. But all of us – lizards, lemmings or pale skinned lambs – seek the blessing of shade sooner or later. Parasols are good, gazebos are better, but deep down we all know that trees give the best shade. Perhaps something inside from the days before we left them…

Now I could bore you with wonderful facts and endless statistics about the shade and life giving wonders of trees. Of how the earth would be scorched and desolate without them, or why tree-shade is always cooler than concrete-shade. But I won’t. Not today, at least. Because you all know that some of life’s sweetest summer moments are spent in peaceful arboreal shade…

  • “People watching” in Southern European town squares under pollarded planes or luscious maples
  • Chilling in hot city parks while children chase frisbees and dogs chase children
  • Recovering behind Mediterranean beaches in the cool of stone pines and cypresses
  • Picnicking in flower strewn orchards, or by cool mountain streams
  • Strolling in the dappled shade of beech forests or the deep gloom of conifers
  • Exploring exotic flea markets in out of the way places
  • Sipping that first icy cocktail under a pergola in an Aegean taverna

Need I say more?

Here are some “postcards” old and new, to remind you of the shade giving blessing of trees. When you’re sipping that first icy cocktail, remember to say a silent “thank you” to those who planted your shade.

Lebanon, 2012

Dorchester, c1900

Adelaide, 2011

Cornwall, c1890

PS – thank you to Kim, for leading me to the wonders of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs on-line catalogue. If you haven’t been, go soon!