Orphan fruit

So our lone pomegranate has finally ripened…

As you can see, beautiful from one point of view, less-than-perfect from another. After watching this one develop over a period of months, and detaching a few companion fruit that were attacked by pests, we have taken the plunge and picked the survivor today.

Pomegranate 3 11.17

Filled with seeds bathed in sparkling, dark red juice among soft and creamy pith, this is a gem of a pomegranate, and it is one hundred per cent organic – truly free from all chemicals. The juice is tingly-tart, without any bitter after-taste, and surprisingly refreshing. As I wrote in a previous post (pith and skin )I never understood why pomegranates are considered such desirable fruit; but I’m beginning to come round to them, as the juice is wonderful. Pity about the, er, bits and bobs that get stuck in the teeth.

By coincidence I have just come across two more pomegranate trees while visiting friends who live in new-build villas nearby. There’s a trend in New Cairo towards basement gardens; it’s an odd idea, in my view, as it puts the garden below street level, with poorer drainage and obstructed light, especially if the plot is surrounded by tall buildings.

It tends to begin as little more than an afterthought, as the original plan is for a villa on most of the land with underground garage and courtyard; but once bitten by the planting bug, many people go on to develop quite elaborate below-ground gardens with interesting planting schemes, water features, patios and the like. I’m surprised to see how many fruit trees are crammed in: mangoes, now that varieties such as “Keet” are available that don’t tower above the neighbourhood; citrus; banana; and pomegranate.

I think if I were to start over, I would do it the other way round: buy a plot of land, plan the garden – with particular attention to the kitchen garden and fruit – and then design a small house to fit. Water would have a central part, but not in the way it has in our present surroundings, where the irrigation systems repeatedly flood and the only pools are heart-shaped horrors to swim (or paddle) in.

Rather, I would take inspiration from traditional Islamic gardens from Andalusia to Afghanistan, with their successions of pools and water channels and the sound of ever-flowing water among the trees and flower beds. And there would be a kiosk to sit in, with blue and green ceramic tiles, and benches for relaxation and reading, meeting and chatting (with all mobiles switched off!) Oddly enough, I’ve come across just such a kiosk in downtown Cairo this week, in the garden of the Doctors’ Syndicate of all places.

It’s just a thought. I’m digressing. But you may not be surprised to know that we are off to the theatre on Sunday, to see an adaptation/dramatisation of the “Forty Rules of Love.” And all this flows from a single, lovely pomegranate…

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Marvellous moringa

A new herb has started to pop up in our supermarkets – at least, it’s new to me. I can’t think that I have ever seen it on the shelves before. From organic herbal tea bags by Sekem – “rich in vitamins, minerals and proteins necessary for the body” – to packets of fresh leaves from Ramsco – “best remedy for natural weight loss…. Tiny leaves. Enormous benefits” – moringa is being promoted for an astonishing range of benefits.

Moringa 1

So what is it, and where does it come from?

Moringa spp., family Moringaceae, appear in the RHS Encyclopedia of Herbs*. Endemic across a wide belt from Africa and Madagascar to Arabia and India, they tend to form dense trees of some size – M. oliefera may be up to 7m tall – with bipinnate leaves composed of many small leaflets, oval in shape and bright-to-dark-green in colour.

Moringa leaf Almost every part of the tree is useful, the leaves for infusions, as with the Sekem tea bags, and the roots for a condiment quite like horseradish (and this is one common name for the tree, by the way). Unripe pods and young leaves are eaten as vegetables in India, while the flowers are used to flavour curries.

The leaves are said to taste like mustard, but to my mind infusions made with the fresh leaves or using the bags were insipid. They could have been made with lettuce. Hmm.

But here’s an interesting story: The bark yields ben gum (thus another name, ben tree) and the seeds are the source of ben oil, widely used in foods, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics because it doesn’t go rancid. And – surprise! – the ancient Egyptians knew all about it.

According to Lisa Manniche in “An Ancient Egyptian Herbal”* M. pterygosperma is indigenous to the country. Maybe the Egyptians didn’t know, or need to know, about the business of weight loss, but they valued the oil and used it extensively. The New Kingdom tomb of a high official named Maya was found to contain ten jars of sweet moringa oil for his funeral procession. One had an inscription listing the contents as best quality moringa oil, gum and mandrake.**

In the ancient pharmacopoeia, the oil was a significant ingredient in medications, “either on its own or as a vehicle, frequently with honey, for remedies incorporating other ingredients,” Manniche adds. Mostly it helped to combat stomach ache or cramps; but it could be applied to aching teeth, or to a wound to stem the flow of blood.

So I imagine the ancient army marching with moringa in their first-aid pouches, rather as aloe was used by the Romans according to Dioscorides.

M. oliefera seems to have even wider medicinal potential from promoting lactation in nursing mothers to combatting TB and septicaemia to lowering lipid and glucose levels – thereby assisting in controlling diabetes and heart disease – to stabilising the fluctuations in mood and wellbeing of those prone to depression. Or so it is claimed.*

Coming back to the packet of leaves I found in our local supermarket, the label lists a number of nutritional benefits such as “7 times the vitamin C of oranges, 4 times the vitamin A of carrots, 4 times the calcium of milk” and more. Some websites go further: the leaves are rich in antioxidants and filled with protein. Clearly, moringa is a quiet and self-effacing wonder-tree, a rich resource to be tapped to help supplement diets at a time when there is considerable food-stress in many parts of the world – too many calories or two few calories, and sparse or inadequate nutrients either way.

And there’s one further thing: using a combination of a cloth and crushed seeds of moringa you can make a simple, effective and cheap filter to purify drinking water. Now, I wonder, did the ancient Egyptian army carry moringa seeds and lengths of linen cloth on campaign to keep the water supply safe? I’d love to know!

  • An Encyclopedia of Herbs, Royal Horticultural Society, pub. Dorling Kindersley
  • An Ancient Egyptian Herbal, Lisa Manniche, pub. AUC Press
  • ** Mandrake (Mandragora spp.) is another fascinating herb, much used in ancient Egypt, but risky as it is part of the Solanaceae family along with deadly nightshade etc. Known for its anaesthetic and antiseptic properties and as an aphrodisiac.
  • For websites with further info, especially about the health benefits of moringa, see:

https://miracletrees.org      https://mindbodygreen.com      https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

 

Obsessing about the raised beds

As usual, I’m obsessing about the raised beds. Seen from above, they don’t look so bad:

RBs 2 & 4 10.17

Up close and personal, it’s a different story. Depleted soil; swarms of snails; tribes of woodlice; a late-summer plague of grasshoppers; reams of caterpillars; mealy bugs on aubergine/tomato plants…. Not to mention the truly spectacular failure, etched on my memory, of crops I tried to grow through spring and early summer 2017, from aubergines to squash, courgettes to tomatoes.

So has anything gone right? Well, the mint in RB4 is magnificent, although it’s not supposed to be there at all. I hauled armfuls of the herb out this morning as I got the bed ready for the coming growing season:

Mint fr RB4 10.17

Now this is quite a treat, so let me acknowledge the glorious, fresh smell that pervaded the kitchen. Known as na’ana’a baladi, or “local mint” in Egypt, it’s often added to glasses of sweet black tea, or whizzed up with lemon juice, sugar and ice-cold water to make a frothy and refreshing pick-me-up in hot weather.

Spearmint, known for some reason as sa’oudi, is less popular. We were given some by friends: I keep it by the back door, to be accessible for emergency purposes – an infusion is a brilliant (and rapid) digestive tonic.

Returning to my obsession: I began the growing season this autumn by getting the timing wrong. I’ve done this before – planted too early – and paid the price, and now I’ve repeated the same mistake. So my neat rows of cut and come again lettuce; early mizuna; dill; rocket; and oriental green leaves a) hardly germinated and b) where they did struggle to the surface, were decimated by pests.

On the other hand, seeds I didn’t sow have germinated with a vengeance, including flat-leaf parsley in RB4 around a similarly self-seeded basil (below left), while I also discovered an unknown Greek oregano hiding under the mint (right):

Rocket has appeared here, there and everywhere except where I sowed the seeds; but, not to be put off, after finishing preparing the bed and moving some young rocket plants into it from elsewhere, I sowed more seeds in the hope that the timing now might be better.

As for RB2, everything that germinated there was eaten to oblivion, in spite of the netting covering the whole bed. There’s just a tiny bit of mizuna left – though you may have difficulty spotting it in the photo:

RB2 mizuna struggling 10.17

Although I did some preliminary clearing of RB1, I’ve yet to get properly to grips with it or RB3. Seen from above, they look slightly better than at ground level.

RBs 1 & 3 10.17

RB3 is the major challenge, as it has not been properly dug for at least 2 years, and I have no doubt it will be full of tree roots. Plus, I will have run out of compost by the time I get to it, so I will have to buy some in if the soil is to be improved and it’s anyone’s guess whether the commercially available kompoost here is any good.

Maybe a green fertiliser would do the trick. However, my previous attempt, using clover (or berseem, much grown in the countryside in Egypt, where it is also used as animal fodder) was counter-productive: I couldn’t dig the stuff out of the bed!

So, having calmed down a bit as I worked steadily on RB4, I decided to take the kitchen garden one bed at a time, and stick to a conservative sowing schedule for the rest of the season. No adventures, no tricks – just steady digging and sowing, and a prayer for each row as I cover the seeds over.

A surprise in store

There are times when our plants cause me to do a double-take. This happened today.

I often take some steps back to view an area either from above, from a bedroom window or from the roof; or from a distance, as from the back doorstep looking over the raised beds. It helps to see the garden in perspective and to spot things I might not see from close up.

So I was astonished to find that our lime tree, seen from the vantage point of the back door, has a small crop of fruit on a section overhanging raised bed 1. As I always have my head down to work on the bed, I hadn’t actually noticed the fruit above.

The limes are beautiful: small, round and glowing a brilliant green on this most ungainly tree:

This is a curious development. I can’t remember when the young tree was planted as I didn’t keep an accurate record (doh!) Perhaps some six or seven years ago. Since then, it has produced no fruit, although there have been a few flowers in each of the past two or three springs.

A bit impatiently – after all, young trees need possibly five years to settle in and mature before they can be expected bear fruit – I resorted to blandishments. Why? I had read in Helena Attlee’s wonderful book The Land where Lemons Grow that it may work to lay the law down to citrus trees and show them who’s boss.

In an anecdote taken from the Book of Agriculture of Ibn al-Awam, a medieval Arab text of the almanac sort, she relates that if a citrus tree fails to bear fruit, then two workmen should approach it with an axe, and openly discuss in front of the tree how, if it does not produce a crop in the coming year, it will be cut down. “That generally did the trick,according to Ibn al-Awam”, she adds, “and he was obviously right.”

Attlee cites as modern-day evidence a heavily-laden mandarin tree growing on an estate in Liguria where this approach had been tried and had achieved dramatic results.

So I did the same with our lime tree in the spring. Tired of being jabbed by its horrendous thorns whenever I worked on RB1, and fed up with its straggly shape and blackened, unhealthy leaves, I told the tree in no uncertain terms that either it bore fruit this year – or else! I may even have given it a kick – the veggie’s version of the axe treatment.

Hey presto, or abracadabra, or whatever words you like, we now have limes.

And not just limes, either. Right now, our orange tree that turned out to be predominantly, but not exclusively, an “Italian” lemon (as the Egyptians call citrus trees bearing the big lemons, though none is native to Italy) with a feeble branch of orange grafted onto the rootstock has its usual wonderful crop of superb, juicy fruit in all sorts of colours from green to orange, though they are still lemons.

Some branches are so heavy with fruit that we are supporting them by arrangement with the guava tree nearby.

And the kumquat tree also promises another superb harvest:

Ahead lies a period of intensive marmalade-making, a laborious but rewarding process that will take me back to idyllic days in Sicily last autumn, when we visited organic citrus estates and tasted so many glorious, mouthwatering types of marmellata (bitter or Seville orange; blood orange; grapefruit; lemon).

I wish I could grow bergamot as well. Not that I have tried – I have never seen a tree in Egypt, and don’t know if it is ever grown here.

Finally, a wonderful fruit that developed slowly – oh so slowly – over the summer. Our one and only Keet mango:

Keet mango 9.17

There were three or four fruit on the tree; all but one failed. We waited months for it to ripen, finally enjoying our mouthwatering mini-mango-feast at the end of September. Worth the wait!

* The Land where Lemons Grow – Helena Attlee, pub. by Penguin Books. The best book on citrus fruit I know, and a wonderful tour of Italy from Liguria and Lake Garda to eastern Sicily.

 

Across an antique sea

Gardening is when I tend to muse. I know I ought to concentrate, but I can’t all the time. There’s only so much focus I can manage on an unwieldy hedge of Indian laurel. Besides, for me, gardening is often meditative.

Various strands are coming together these days to take me, mind and spirit, away from the immediate tasks. For a start, “world affairs” (no, don’t worry, I won’t start). Then, the hyper-active wildlife around us, from our resident insects, including unusual numbers of grasshoppers this autumn, and birds – warblers, bulbuls, doves, hoopoes – to passage migrants such as the European bee eaters that have been visiting for a while to snack on the residents of our hives.

Plus a recent visit to Alexandria reminded me of something I tend to forget, living near Cairo: Egypt is part of the Mediterranean world.

Alexandria, founded in the C4 BCE by Macedonians, was one of the great trading ports of the ancient and medieval worlds. Nowadays, though its historic character is disappearing fast, it still has a distinctive atmosphere. Wandering through a busy street market filled with the produce of the sea and the fields of the Nile Delta, with artisans’ workshops behind the stalls, I felt I could have been in Sicily browsing the markets in Catania, or Ortigia, otherwise ancient Siracusa, founded by Greeks from Corinth.

You will see this in the slideshow. Each pair of photos places Alex first, then either Catania or Ortigia. The Alex images are smaller because I didn’t have my iPad and used a mobile phone instead:

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Street markets are so revealing, wherever they are: Stalls overflowing with farm produce, the leaves fresh and crisp and sometimes beaded with dew in the early morning when nights are really cool. Herbs, salad leaves and veg were beautiful in both Sicily and Alexandria. Autumn in Egypt is pickling season, so there were plenty of olives, chillies, limes, while in Ortigia the tomatoes were amazing.

This musing on the phenomenon of our trans-Mediterranean culture and heritage has been brought into sharper focus by reading Amitav Ghosh’s book about Egypt, “In an Antique Land”*.

Ghosh weaves two different biographies into his work: one is his own stay as a graduate student in the Delta in the early 1980s, the other is that of a Jewish merchant trader of the Middle Ages.  Links with Sicily are there in the second story, as part of Abraham Ben Yiju’s family moved from what  is now Tunisia to the island in the C12 CE. But there are much wider networks, across the Red Sea to Aden, where Ghosh has established that Ben Yiju lived for a while, and beyond this to Mangalore in southwest India where he settled and traded in commodities including spices like cardamom.

It’s a brilliant investigation of a world of extended commercial and personal networks in an era before the term “globalisation” was coined. Ghosh also, however, looks with an anthropologist’s eye view at modern Egypt. Here again, networks across the seas are part of life and an entirely rural community, where most people depend on the land, is portrayed as part of a wider pattern of events.

I didn’t learn much about how the land is cultivated from Ghosh’s book, but then he is not an agricultural engineer. Divvying up great estates after the 1952 Revolution is in there as is the purchase of machinery (made in India); but very little about crops. There is no obsession with pests and bugs, and, of course, in the post-Aswan High Dam era, villagers are not concerned about the Nile flood.

But as an account of the experience of living with ordinary Egyptians, and as primary research into an era of extended contacts over the seas almost entirely lost in the mists of time,  “In an Antique Land” is exceptional.

So, as my battle with the hedge of Ficus nitida ebbs and flows, I lose concentration and sail off, figuratively speaking, with the trading ships of another era carrying spices and textiles maybe, eventually, as far as London.

  • In an Antique Land – Amitav Ghosh pub. by Granta

 

 

Wildly romantic

Courtyard garden 1Last weekend was a treat for the gardener – an escape from late summer pruning and clearing up, preparing raised beds and chucking compost about – with a diversion into a wildly romantic garden in the northern city of Alexandria.

Tucked away in the district of Smouha, the Antoniades villa and garden is a magical estate of shady pathways, formal gardens with classical statuary, once grand promenades and a secluded courtyard with fountains and water channel. It has a special atmosphere – enhanced, I think, by the clear light and expansive sky of the Mediterranean.

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The mix of formal design and planting with stands of conifers and trees from across the world may well have been persuasive in its time; now, however, the conifers are running away and, though some hedges are well clipped, many shrubs and trees are a riot.Colour is muted: At this time of year, Plumbago capensis and Lantana camera are most prolific, with occasional splashes of red from Bougainvillea spectabilis, but most eyecatching of all are the glorious Hibiscus rosa-sinensis.

Perhaps this gives the garden its special charm, as a faded memory of Alexandria in a very different era, when grand houses and splendid gardens were de rigueur for the rich.

Here and there the formal planting is well maintained and the water sufficient for the garden to thrive; a statue of Venus suggests the illusion of a European garden but then the spell is broken by Hypatia, mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, and a leading light of Alexandria’s intelligentsia in the C4 CE.

Formal garden - Hypatia

The work of French architects and landscape designers, the estate was once owned by Sir John Antoniades, a wealthy banker of Greek origin with a trans-Mediterranean business empire and a knighthood from Queen Victoria. But its creation was also part of a wider effort by the ruler of Egypt in the 1860s, the Khedive Ismail, to beautify both Cairo and Alexandria with grand buildings in the French style, botanical collections, orchards and zoological gardens.

Even more fascinating is the site’s link with the city’s deepest past: It is on, or very close to, the land where Callimachus once lived. The inventor of the library catalogue system, Callimachus (c.305 – c.240 BCE) was a scholar, poet and librarian at the Great Library of classical Alexandria. Even more interesting, the Academy (or Mouseion) and Library were established by the Macedonian kings of Egypt, following Alexander the Great’s vision, with both zoo and botanical garden alongside – which makes the link with the site today even stronger.

My wandering was filled with admiration for a once-lovely garden now overlaid with a melancholy air…. Classical Alexandria was the scene of an extraordinary flowering of intellectual and cultural life before fading as the Graeco-Roman world disappeared and Cairo rose to prominence. The Antoniades Garden seemed to hint subtly, in the breezes that blew across it, at this past.

May it be preserved as part of our common heritage!

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Making merry (and mischief)

The bugs have been having a ball in our garden this year. I guess gardening organically means that, for all the abundance of wildlife in the garden and therefore of natural predators, there’s also an overwhelming buildup of pests.

It didn’t help that I was away for nearly two months from mid-July. Or that I’m not particularly stringent about “hygiene” in the garden. If the idea is to let nature have her way –  with a bit of guidance – why obsess about collecting up leaves and “cleaning” the beds? It’s a word I hear constantly from the gardeners: The verb nadafa (to clean) is over-used, and needs to be, er, swept away.

There have been some unexpected encounters. In the spring, a praying mantis in the big basil (Ocimum basilicum) near the balcony; more recently the garden has been alive with crazy jumping grasshoppers/crickets (they love the piles of drying materials between the raised beds) and one magnificent locust:

 

Yesterday, as the gardeners began trimming our hedge of Ficus nitida (Indian laurel), dense with dead wood, infested leaves and dust, down came a stem with a truly beautiful caterpillar attached. Magnificent in the finest shades of green camouflage, he seemed to have meandered straight off the toadstool in “Alice in Wonderland”, leaving behind his sheesha:

Caterpillar 9.17

Astonished by his glorious colouring, I took some photos and then popped him in with the clippings to ride off with the waste – giving him a fighting chance. Perhaps I shouldn’t have done that: I would love to see him transformed into a full-fledged butterfly.

The overgrown borders have turned into the usual haven for snails. Wherever the perennials are dense, usually under cover of frangipani (Plumeria acuminata), hibiscus (H. rosa sinensis) and the like, it’s damp enough for snails to make merry and multiply like there’s no tomorrow.

The explorer climbing up the rose (Rosa spp.) is behaving true to form: Snails are often found at a considerable height on anything from hibiscus to the walls of the house! The damage is limited in the borders but much more problematic in the raised beds, where they hide along the sides and in corners, and behind stones or bricks used to batten netting down.

Also hiding in the borders are vast tribes of woodlice, and even some small, dark cockroaches – all of them frantically burrowing into the soil the moment I raise the cover over their heads.

Among the truly spectacular casualties this summer was the chard in RB2, the culprits most likely a herd of rampant caterpillars:

Chard destroyed 9.17

The damage was so comprehensive, it made me laugh. I cut the skeletons down, and fed the roots with compost to encourage new growth, while taking care to cover the bed well with netting. We shall see…

As usual, however, it is the mealy bugs that are wreaking havoc in all directions, especially on the roses, plumbago (P. capensis), Indian laurel and some fruit trees.

One of the lime trees, the kumquat and the Italian lemon tree are all affected not only by mealy bugs but also by other pests that leave sticky webs around the stems, leaves and fruit, as here on the kumquat.

Kumquat 9.17

This could be scale, as it appears to be associated with the patches of white, containing insects, on the stem. Not so much of a problem previously, but quite obvious this year.

To combat the fruit flies, we stripped the guava tree of leaves and immature fruit early in the summer. It should flower again soon and produce fruit in the winter, when there are no flies – but, meanwhile, the pests moved on to the lemon tree nearby and did their best to break through the defences:

Lemons under attack 9.17

According to Eric Moore*, the Middle East is a “relatively pest- and disease-free environment.” for gardeners. Well – not in my experience! I can’t accept spraying with chemicals, so I will have to do a lot more to encourage the birds, lizards, beetles and spiders that might help to combat them. And be more conscientious about cleaning out the infected stuff…

* Gardening in the Middle East – Eric Moore – pub. Stacey International