Pandora’s Box

Right enough of this literary nonsense – Shakespeare? Dickens? Lazy freeloading word shufflers, that’s what I’ve always said. We couldn’t ride a poem to the moon, or refine oil with a novella, or build a hovercraft out of alliteration. Words are for wimps, for those who are not tough enough to build a house, or double dig a flowerbed, or kill a man.  So I apologise for literature’s pernicious and growing influence in this blog over the last few months. Like a spotty young undergraduate affecting a love of James Joyce to impress a pretty girl, I have been wittering on about authors and concepts and stanzas in the hope that it would make me a world renowned and multi-millionaire garden blogger. Well, we all know acne-faced undergrads who very nearly understand Joyce never get the girl – big, drunk, obnoxious, chest beating rugby players get the girl. With that in mind, let’s talk science; manly, tough, petrol driven science. Let’s talk genetic engineering.    

Specifically, the Pandora’s box theory of genetic engineering. There’s a belief that if we start to dabble in the dark arts of GM, even to develop a drought resistant maize, we’ll release all the evils of the world. Dr Frankensteins will be given the freedom to run around creating flying hippos and glow-in-the-dark bracken; cross pollination will be rife, and the world will end in a big ball of airbourne, drought loving, glowing hippos. This is patently nonsense. The Pandora’s box argument says that man was not meant to meddle with evolution. Now, If I remember my Greek mythology correctly, opening Pandora’s box introduced pestilence, disease, and suffering to the world. Pestilence, disease and suffering are the very stuff of evolution! There ain’t no survival of the fittest in the Garden of Eden (if you allow me to mix my mythophores). Now that the Pandora’s box argument has been conveniently demolished by my imperfect reasoning we can get down to the nitty gritty of genetic engineering. Giant cress trees!

GM Box

I have declared my affection for gigantic engineered super trees before, but now I’ve hit upon the species I will grow to build my towering forest of city destroying monster plants. Cress! Scientists have discovered a way to morph the humble cress from chipper little annuals into sturdy perennials that even develop woody tissue through secondary thickening. By switching off two genes that instruct cress to flower, the scientists prevent the plant from using all its non specialist cells. Annuals only live one growing season because having put all their non specialised cells into creating the flower they have active cells left to provide next year’s growing points. Perennials have a reserve of non specialist cells, stored in overwintering buds or bulbs or stalks. The genetically modified cress does not use up all these cells and effectively becomes a perennial.

If cress can be transformed from an annual to a perennial by simply fiddling with a few genes then its surely only a few short steps until we can build it into a vertiginous mammoth, capable of breaking the canopy in a forest of redwoods. Now I know that the majority of people feel iffy about the idea of fiddling about under natures skirts, but is there anyone so organically principled that they would not enjoy cress reaching this position? It’s the ultimate small guys done good, the apogee of Mighty Duck Tales, its Munster beating the All Blacks and Portsmouth winning the cup. After years of languishing in egg sandwiches cress would be king of the jungle.

So there we have it. Genetic engineering is not necessarily a good thing, but it can be a very interesting and exciting thing. Yes, limit the flying hippos, but don’t ban all research, don’t deny my dream of Giant Cress.     

Towering Cress

A fruit By No Other Name

It’s finally time to talk about my new favourite old Elizabethan delicacy, Mespilus germanica . A fruit that’s only palatable when rotten, known to many as the medlar – known to me as the Open Arse.

Cynics might suggest that this entire post is just an excuse to snigger about bums, well, so what? I have literary precedent!  My mentor and muse, the great William Shakespeare, was also compelled to write by the humorous fruit –  over to you Mercutio:

Now will he sit under a medlar tree,
And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit
As maids call medlars, when they laugh alone.
O, Romeo, that she were, O that she were
An open-arse, thou a pop’rin pear!

Oh that she were an Open Arse! Shakespeare fans will of course instantly recall that Mercutio speaks about unseen and uncelebrated proto-Juliet: Rosaline. The laddish Merc-o wishes Rosaline were a medlar, a fruit that is rotten before its ripe.  Medlars can only be enjoyed when they are slightly physically decomposed, just as women can only be enjoyed when they are slightly morally decomposed.

Medlar, stage left, pursued by a leaf.

Now it might be slightly tenuous to suggest that the medlar is critical in understanding Romeo and Juliet. The play would hobble along if it was taken out and replaced with the apple, banana, tomato, or another word more palatable to modern mouths. The medlar stanza was never much quoted anyway, it ain’t no ‘rose by any other name’, the play would function just as well, and be slightly shorter, if we cut it out all together . But that won’t happen. Because then you have an abridged version , and no-one likes an abridged version. Abridged versions are for children and cretins and Hollywood.

So why then do we have an abridged national cuisine? I consider myself a child of the hedgerows, I’ve eaten my share of wild garlic soup and measured my life in nettle tea, but I have never eaten a medlar. I’ve never had the opportunity to eat a medlar. I did not even know what a medlar was until I read about Shakespeare’s open arses (this post was going to be about roses, I’ve been pruning them for the last few weeks and I was reading R&J to find the name of the rose quote). This is a fruit that apparently is the perfect partner to cheese and wine, that was rich in symbolism and comically anatomical in appearance, and I have never had the opportunity to even try one.

Where did this fruit get lost? How have we mislaid something so evocative, symbolic and tasty?  This is not a situation where we can blame Tesco for coming in and making us all eat from the Universal Vat of Own Brand Beans. At some point there has been a breakdown in communication between the ages. One of you ancestral generations  forgot to tell your offspring about the medlar tree, and now we are all suffering for it. Having never tasted it I think I’m safe in saying that losing the taste of the medlar is just as tragic as losing the complete works of William Shakespeare. 

I know that out there somewhere there must a last remaining enclave of medlar enthusiasts . A lost tribe who have never tried a kiwi fruit and who keep the memory and taste of the open arse alive. This post is an appeal to you. I would desperately love to try some well bletted medlars. Pass on this post to anyone who’s holding, or anyone you think might be holding some medlars. I’ll meet you on Putney Bridge, 15:00, April  1st,  I’ll bring the cheese, you bring the rotten fruit.

Mr William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare

Plants Against Crime

Sound trumpets and beat the great war drum! Stop all the clocks and hold the press! Wave flags, raise hands and slap bottoms! This May I fight my debut fight in The Chelsea Battledome. For a tender young shoot of a gardener this is a momentous day – typing this I can almost hear the baying of the crowd and scent the blood, as my collegiate companions and I do battle in the Continuous Learning category. Winners will go home strewn with rose petals, to hagiographic reviews on school web-pages; losers will be scraped up and unceremoniously composted.

This year theme is……………. The Power of Plants.

The Chelsea Flower Show - Continuous Learning Award

My college class will be exhibiting “plants power to reduce crime.” This is an area that I find fascinating. Introducing greenery to crime ridden areas has been shown to encourage community interaction and foster a sense of wellbeing and civic pride that has a measurable effect in reducing crime. Antisocial behaviour breeds in grey voids of lonely shabbiness; a display of colour and the demonstration that someone cares about the area has a great effect on the amount of residents stabbing each other. Current American research shows that far from providing places for airborne rapists to shelter, trees in urban areas act as a meeting places and conversation facilitators – if you bump into a neighbour under a tree you are far more likely to start chatting than if you meet them under a graffiti-ed metal road sign. Green areas provide the liminal space needed to strike up the relationships that are vital for community cohesion and safety, and people who meet under trees are far more likely to one day end up having sex, fact, and its virtually always consensual.

Plants Against Crime

In an effort to prepare myself for the creation of this horti-sociological knowledge booth I have been trying to acquaint myself with some of the nasty, grim, dangerous and deprived areas of London. The ones that only seem to exist in Dickens’ novels. I found some, but Dickens’ were much more fun, so I’ve re-read Nicholas Nickleby instead.

I’m not sure a presentation ‘on the power of gardens to reduce crime in Nicholas Nickleby’ was really what the Chelsea organisers had in mind when they accepted our proposal. They’d probably say it ‘lacked universal appeal’ or was ‘a bloody stupid idea’, but it’s what I ended up researching,  anyway, I’ve made significant findings, my foot is in the door and I will not be denied my stage!

The protagonist who would have felt the most benefit from a nice garden in Nicholas Nickleby is the malevolent Uncle Ralph. Uncle Ralph is not a nice man, and in the words of Charles D ‘Ralph cared for nothing in this life, or beyond it, save the gratification of two passions: avarice, the first and predominate appetite of his nature, and hatred, the second…. The only scriptural admonition that Ralph Nickleby heeded, in the letter, was ‘know thyself.’ He knew himself well, and choosing to imagine that all mankind were cast in the same mould, hated them.’ A prime candidate for criminal skulduggery if we’ve ever been introduced to one. But how easily could he have changed! Listen to this passage:

Mr Nickleby closed an account book which lay open on his desk, threw himself back in his chair and gazed with an air of abstraction through the dirty window. Some London houses have a melancholy little plot of ground behind them, usually fenced in by four high whitewashed walls and frowned upon by stacks of chimneys, in which there withers from year to year a crippled tree, that makes a show of putting forth a few leaves in late autumn, when other trees shed theirs, and drooping in the effort, lingers on all crackled and smoke dried till the following season, when it repeats the same process, and perhaps if the weather be particularly genial, even tempts some rheumatic sparrow to chirrup in its branches. People sometimes call these dark yards ‘gardens’.       

Uncle Nickleby escapes the view
Mr Nickleby describes his view

It’s no wonder that old Ralph found himself up to his chin in nefarious happenings. I’m sure that if I had had to look at that blighted little square I would be setting up unprincipled muffin companies, sending my sickly illegitate offspring to brutal northern boarding schools and stealing wills in the blink of an eye. If I were a generous and horticulturaly benevolent  Charles Dickens (I can but pray) I would have written: 

Mr Nickleby closed an account book which lay open on his desk, threw himself back in his chair and gazed with an air of abstraction through the dirty window. ‘Oh blast he gasped, another rheumatic sparrow!’ Clutching his sparrow stick he rushed into the garden, yelping and cackling, ushering the old bird away from his crocuses. Once outside in the warm smoke dried air Ralph could not face heading back inside and upstairs to his dusty accounts and the sordid affairs of the United Metropolitan Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery Company. So he whiled away a pleasant hour in day dream, until he was broken from his reverie by a young man.

‘Good afternoon sir, I am you Nephew Nicholas. I hate to intrude, but my father has just passed away and left…’ 

‘Say no more’ Ralph interrupted. ‘I’ll write you a check, what’s the damage? No, actually, crumb it, take it all. Why do I need it? After all I’ve got my crocuses and they’re all I want.’

So there we go. Studies in America can show what they like about the power of plants, but this simple and logical re-imagination shows that the humble crocus can effectively cut 700 pages from one of the greatest comic novels ever written. Come to Chelsea where I will be expanding on the theme, and asking what would have happened if Jude the Obscure had preferred the water meadows of Christminster to its watering holes and if Heathcliffe had been drawn to Physic gardens over foggy moors.