Remi’s helping hand

We arrived back from the hospital in Hastings and Sammy, my granddaughter, parked her black VW car in the parking space at the front of the house. It was wet; there had been much rain, and shallow puddles spread over the greyish-brown grit among the sparse flora that had managed to grow there: pineapple weed, smooth hawksbeard and annual meadow grass.

I opened the front left-hand car door, where I was sitting far enough forward to get myself out. I knew it was going to be difficult as I was bundled up in many layers of clothes to keep myself warm while my legs had just been tightly bandaged at the hospital. I swivelled sideways to start levering myself out when I noticed a small pink hand on my black puffer coat. Remi, my 35-month-old great-grandson, released from his child seat, had made his way around the car to where I was sitting. “I’ve come to give you a helping hand, grandad”, he announced and put his hand on my hip to start levering me outwards and upwards. Together, we succeeded in completing a far-from-graceful movement to get me into an upright position.

The little pink hand, with a 2-foot fair-headed child attached, satisfied with its first challenge, then grasped my left hand and started to lead me the 38 steps to the back door. With great care, we squeezed past the huge, dark green mop head of the Lawson’s cypress Chamaecyparis lawsoniana tamariscifolia, beaded with shining raindrops. This is a conifer, raised at the Darley Dale Nursery in Derbyshire that I most admired during a visit to the Bedgebury Pinetum in 1977. I bought a small plant from a nursery near my home in 1981. It is now a substantial evergreen bush protecting the western wall of the house. Remi chattered all the time with random English words scattered among his monologue. We passed the northern side of the old brick chimney (c. 1935) with its max/min thermometer and superfast broadband box nailed to the side. This sheltered north-west corner features the curving green wands of Himalayan honeysuckle (Leycesteria formosa), also known as the pheasant berry, Elisha’s tears and many more vernacular names. It was introduced to Britain from the Himalayas and China in 1924 and has an Award of Garden Merit (AGM) from the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), though I am rather surprised at that as it is not very showy. In the autumn, its purple and white dangling flowers produce dark purple berries. These are said mostly to be edible, but, from some strains, they may be toxic – nobody seems quite sure. The plant is frequently bird-sown in the wild, and this includes the one in our chimney corner, which just appeared there. In some places, the plant is known as the ghost whistle because fluting sounds can be produced from the broken ends of the stalks when the wind blows like mysterious notes from pan pipes: “the thin, clear, happy call of the distant piping! Such music I never dreamed of” (from Wind in the Willows. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn)

On the north-west corner of the house itself, there is a mature tree of rock whitebeam (Sorbus rupicola). I grew it from seed from its bright scarlet berries collected in 1986 from limestone cliffs at Matlock in Derbyshire. I put a young plant in this corner since I thought it might enjoy the conditions there even if it did undermine the foundations of the house. It has since grown into a small tree with attractive bunches of bright scarlet berries every autumn. Part of the main trunk grows across the path to the back door at about an adult’s neck height; therefore, adults must duck under it. Many grasp the trunk as they do so, polishing it to a semi-gloss grey-green. Winding shoots from a plant of Akebia quinata scramble up the whitebeam and the pheasant berry and emerge at many different places on the western side of the house. If pollinated by a different member of the same species, they can produce quite large edible fruits, but I have not found a partner for mine. Akebia is supposed to emit a delightful perfume when in flower, but so far, this has eluded me, though I have walked past nearly every day over many years.

Having negotiated the whitebeam, we had to get past the fat, square-clipped yew that tries to force passers-by into one of the larger puddles. Remi had to turn his back to the yew as his legs were too short to step over the puddle, and this fair-haired, pastel-clothed child made a good picture as he stood arms akimbo against the dark foliage of the yew. The plant is almost certainly a seedling of an Irish yew, Taxus baccata fastigiata which grows a few feet away in the hedge. The original Irish yew came from a seedling found in Northern Ireland in a place called Carricknamaddow. This placename has been copied in books and journals unchanged since the 19th C., but this does not seem to be a real location. I have searched Google and other places, but the word only ever comes up in accounts of Irish yew. There is a place with almost the same spelling called Carricknamadew, which I wondered might be the right location, but so far, I am stuck.

Around the skirts of the square-cut yew is a flourishing border of Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae a form of wood spurge from the Middle East. The story goes that Victorian botanist Mary Anne Robb was travelling by carriage somewhere in Turkey in the 1890s when she spotted the eponymous plant by the roadside. She alighted, dug up some or all of the plant and stowed the booty in her hat box, hence the often-used name for the plant: Mrs Robb’s Bonnet. Its dark evergreen leaves, topped by yellow flowers in early spring, make it an attractive plant that has won an AGM from the RHS.

To the east of the hedge is an unkempt square of land, much of it bare earth, where odd bits are put out for animals and birds, and various containers deployed to provide drinking/bathing water plus scattered stones and lumps of wood in an unconscious attempt to emulate the spirit of the garden at Ryoan-ji. The square is backed by the boundary hedge with hazel, hawthorn and ivy, which latter attracts a variety of insects when it flowers in autumn and, in spring, holly blue butterflies whose caterpillars feed on the buds and the flowers. At the base of the hedge, there is a smeuse, a tunnel made by badgers, foxes and next-door’s dogs. Smeuse is a formerly obsolete word for an animal passage of this kind, and it is good to have an excuse to use it. Plants in this unlovely, rewilded square include an ash sapling now two metres tall, false oat grass and a form of Geranium phaeum, the mourning widow. However, the main value of this area is that it can be viewed in all its diversity from the kitchen window. Remi ignores it on our walk, but he looks for future opportunities here to do some nipping, as he calls it, which means using any weapons he can get hold of to cut twigs and small branches. The east of the neglected square is bounded by a tall hedge of Wilson’s honeysuckle, Lonicera ligustrina var. yunnanensis, a shrub formerly and often still called Lonicera nitida ‘Baggesen’s Gold’. It has quite a complicated back story, which I have expatiated on elsewhere. One of the virtues of this shrub is that dormice like to peel the bark to weave into their nests. These legally protected and declining animals are quite frequent in the local gardens and woods, and a couple of years ago, we found an old summer nest deep within the branches of the Lonicera.

We passed The Fernery underneath the kitchen window just before reaching the back door. Over the years, I have collected examples of our common local ferns and planted them in the small strip of earth here. Seeing the plants every day accustoms the eye to picking out the different, often very similar, species when out for a walk. A taller plant that flourishes here is honey spurge, Euphorbia mellifera, which, coming as it does from Madeira and the Canary Islands, is borderline hardy here. The seed pods ripen in late summer, and the sharp cracking as they burst adds to the sound world of the garden. On the edges of The Fernery and its small, muddy cracks in the concrete around the back door steps is an increasing number of the tiny early woodland violet, Viola reichenbachiana; it does flower very early in the year and is slightly darker in colour from the common dog violets which flower a couple of weeks later.

Here, Remi paused at the step and looked down without taking his hand from mine to make sure I could easily ascend the two-inch height of this doorstep. Once I was safely installed in the doorframe, he released his hand and disappeared at high speed into the kitchen, job done.