• kenneth.norrie

The Return of the Non-Native: Garden Blog - 20th April 2020

Regular readers of this blog, as trusting of its truth as a first year student listening rapt to my Legal Methods lectures, will doubtless recall that four weeks ago I mentioned that the house martins have been returning, these past few years, to the skies of Paisleyshire on precisely the same day. So it pleases me no end to report that, once again, 20th April marks the first sighting of these fast-flying harbingers of summer. I see them as confirming that the year’s seasons will turn regardless of human concerns, and as offering hope that a return to normality is inevitable. Welcome immigrants indeed.

Spring is really hitting its stride now. The sun is still low enough to provide backlight to emerging leaves of two coppery Katsura trees. The spring flowers, in many ways my favourite, are at their best this week. Polyanthus, pulmonaria, aubretia and tulips offer for the first time this year a kaleidoscope of colours to complement the yellows and browns of earlier spring. A single snake’s head fritillary bobs about in the wind, and all of this is set off nicely with the still green but ever-expanding clumps of perennials, poking through the earth like heads of broccoli, and ferns, slowly unfurling as if a many-tongued other-worldly carnivore waiting to pounce. In the land of daffodils (where I could happily linger, like a student basking in a tutor’s unexpected praise), it is the late varieties that are now taking centre stage, including the little tete-a-tete, though in truth, I can take or leave that one. As the great Jean Brodie said in her Prime: for those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like. I much prefer the subtle but stronger charms of pheasant eye. This has a lovely white perianth (the six outer petals) complemented by a cup that is so short it is almost two-dimensional, quite different from the normal trumpet, and red as blood, the only yellow being a splash in the iris of the eye. This is surely the best of a great family of bulbs.

As well, a bright orange berberis cheers up a dark corner, and cherry blossom, not yet out at our altitude (though blooming in the village down below), is giving tantalising promises. The early pink rhododendron has faded, but the much larger scarlet-red rhodie is opening some of its heads, with lots more to come. (I’ll miss our annual trip to Finlaystone, Langbank to revel in their early May rhodies). Much more subdued but just as delightful en masse are the white sparklets of blackthorn currently in full bloom in the hedgerows (soon to be replaced with the larger but paler hawthorn, the original Mayflower); and the oriental swirl of orange quince flower. Quince is one of these bushes that scores highly for me and other gardeners who like to get pleasure at both ends. It provides masses of bloom in the spring, and then almost luminescent yellow fruits (inedible, but a source of pectin if you are a jam maker) to add some colour to a fading autumn.

Not so successful this year, though I don’t understand why, are my Kirrie Dumplings, which are but small and half-hearted. I am not exactly disgruntled with them, but I am far from being gruntled (as the 20th Century’s master humourist put it). And that reminds me that no-one in this part of the country calls them Kirrie Dumplings, or indeed has any idea what I am talking about when I use that nomenclature. Are they only called Kirrie Dumplings within a ten mile radius of Kirriemuir? (A Google search calls up a bakery and a nursery (kindergarten) of that name, in the eponymous town but no mention of the plant). There are other garden names which I was brought up with and now find it difficult to think of calling the plants anything else. So antirrhinums will always be to me Mappie Moos (daft mouths) – the English call them, I believe, snapdragons. Montbretia is the old name for crocosmia, but that klinks harsh to my ear and I stick to the traditional. We have two large clumps – one tall red Lucifer, and the other a smaller and more orange (if nameless) variety. Both are a nightmare to control, but I wouldn’t do without them for late summer cut flowers.

When we first moved here there was quite a bit of what in Scotland is universally known as whin. When I dig it out (it’s far too spikey to leave in a flower bed) I always remember the crudest thing my late father would ever say: “ach, awa’ an’ cla’ yir wheerie wi’ a whin” (anglicae: “well, you should just go away and scratch your bum with a gorse bush” – which is rather less evocative of the exasperation it was meant to convey to the pre-pubescent proto-prof being, doubtless justly, castigated).

Of course it is not just plants that have fine words that are being used less and less these days. Mavis (as in “I heard the mavis singing” in the lyrics of Mary of Argyle) is a thrush. A shelfie is a chaffinch and a merle of course a blackie: neither I used commonly growing up, but I understood them well enough. Everyone talked about cushie doos (wood pigeons) and spuggies (house sparrows), then the most common of small birds. Some years ago, visiting friends in South Australia, I was intrigued to hear that the old word in that part of Australia was “spog” – clearly someone from Scotland had imported the name and the Australians had bastardised (as they do) the pronunciation. Perhaps that long forgotten Scot imported the bird too for it is certainly no native of the antipodes. On a similar theme, Wellington in New Zealand is the only place I know other than Dundee where Belgian biscuits – which in Glasgow go by the name of Empire biscuits – are given their proper, Flanderish, name. Wellington’s first bakers were clearly from the Pearl of Tayside. Is it really true that until the First World War everyone called these baking delights German biscuits? (And why has Michael Randall, Star Baker of the Great Strathclyde Law School, never attempted this Scottish sweetmeat beyond compare?*).

Back to the garden, and birds. The birdfeeders are being visited constantly, a clear sign of the mating season. Perhaps the most delightful visitors are the goldfinches, who seem to be especially fond of the sunflower hearts. Charmingly, they feed hanging upside down, and it is an added joy that they usually come in groups: the most I’ve seen this week was six. Sometimes in the bushes we catch a fleeting glimpse of a gold crest, whose sharp flash of gold on its head never fails to amaze, for it is otherwise quite drab. This is the smallest of all British birds. It never comes to the feeders.

And what are Kirrie Dumplings, actually? Primula Denticulata, or the drumstick primula. Something that usually (though not for me, this year) punches above its weight in the spring garden. Better luck next year, the perennial balming thought of failed gardeners everywhere.

*Editor's note: I have made Empire biscuits and brought them in to the school before...Pauline McKay of our postgraduate admin team mentioned she was a fan of them

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