A smelly discovery at the botanical gardens

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Maidenhair Tree – Ginkgo biloba

But first, writing this is pure heaven because – thanks to a surprise gift from our son – I’ve finally migrated out of the Apple empire into the equally dubious but far more joined-up empire of Android. It was a tremendous gift because I was expecting a small tablet and when I opened the box it turned out to be a full-on laptop, all of which meant that with a bit of jiggery pokery, a few face to face tutorials from him, and a whole lot of automatic stuff the whole system works brilliantly. Just to recap I’d already inherited his previous Google Pixel phone a couple of weeks ago and this weekend, with the new laptop, I moved the last few files across and I no longer had to wait 25 minutes for my ancient MacBook to boot up and wheeze its way to some kind of functionality. I’m overjoyed at the knowledge that I can just get on with writing and not have to spend hours cleaning the system because the 4Gb RAM filled up with junk. I can even look at all the photos in the library without having to stop for a coffee in the middle of  a session. My ancient dread at changing operating systems turned out to be a folk tale put about by Apple. A couple of days offline was all it took. The Potwell Inn carrier pigeons and the old smoke signal machine have been retired to the outdoor privvy.

But back to today and, system up and running, we all went for  a walk up to the Botanical Gardens. The gardens have lots of good stuff in them but with constant budget cutbacks it’s a largely voluntary effort these days, and bits of the gardens are a bit rough round the edges.  However we had great fun using the Google Lens features on our phones to identify some of the plants and bushes in flower – it’s surprisingly accurate, quite as fast as some of the paid-for apps I’ve used in the past and well worth trying out, if only to narrow down the choices before making a formal ID using a key. We didn’t need to look for the Ginkgo because there was a nice big label on the tree.

There was no problem, then, in identifying the tree but the most interesting thing was the smell of the fruits rotting on the ground. I really didn’t know that they smelt so bad until we walked through the gate and T said “ugh – what’s that smell?” What indeed? A  quick check and we were offered rancid butter and vomit as possible descriptions.  I’d say dog poo and dead sheep came into it as well. For a plant with such powerful healing qualities it certainly does its bit to repel visitors. Fortunately the leaves were well beyond being worth saving and we’ve no means of extracting oil from the single seed inside the fruits, and so we escaped with a little more knowledge but no further need for dealing with the stink. The tree was right next to the entrance and it wasn’t hard to see other visitors taking surreptitious looks at the rest of us to see who’d stepped in something.

Late autumn and winter’s a funny time.  Everything feels as if it’s shutting down, but if you have a hunt around there are lovely things to be found.  The purple berries of the Callicarpa bodinieri were lovely, and the Verbena brasiliensis too was showing off just a bit. But I’m a sucker even for drifts of dead plants, and the birds in the area must be able to take advantage of the seed heads as a food source. 

As the solstice gets closer I get just an occasional insight into the significance of this season. As a sunshine loving activist I’m inclined to get fretful if I can’t get out on to the ground, and yet dealing with dearth and plenty, feast and famine, is fundamental to our human-ness. The earth is a complex, dynamic and interrelated system that has its own idea of what constitutes good practice. An annual season of reflection and contemplation is essential for our welfare. Screaming at an empty supermarket shelf because something we want isn’t there, is a sign that we need to get out more – not find a way of squeezing another crop out of the exhausted earth. So bring it on – the solstice will soon be here.

Author: Dave Pole

I've spent my life doing a lot of things, all of them interesting and many of them great fun. When most people see my CV they probably think I'm making things up because it includes being a rather bad welder and engineering dogsbody, a potter, a groundsman and bus driver. I taught in a prison and in one of those ghastly old mental institutions as an art therapist and I spent ten years as a community artist. I was one of the founding members of Spike Island, which began life as Artspace Bristol. ! wrote a column for Bristol Evening Post (I got sacked three times, in which I take some pride) and I worked in local and network radio and then finally became an Anglican parish priest for 25 years, retiring at 68 when I realised that the institutional church and me were on different paths. What interests me? It would be easier to list what doesn't, but I love cooking and baking with our home grown ingredients. I'm fascinated by botany and wildlife in general, and botanical illustration. We have a camper van that takes us to the wild places, we love walking, especially in the hills, and we take too many photographs. But what really animates me is the question "what does it mean to be human?". I've spent my life exploring it in every possible way and the answer is ..... well, today it's sitting in the van in the rain and looking across Ramsey Sound towards Ramsey Island. But it might as easily be digging potatoes or making pickle, singing or finding an orchid or just sitting. But it sure as hell doesn't mean getting a promotion, beasting your co-workers or being obsequious to power, which ensured that my rise to greatness in the Church of England flatlined 30 years ago after about 2 days. But I'm still here and still searching for that elusive sweet spot, and I don't have to please anyone any more. Over the last 50 or so years we've had a succession of gardens, some more like wildernesses when we were both working full-time, but now we're back in the game with our two allotments in Bath.

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