Summer colour-fest

The title might be an over-estimation. Summer colours in our garden can be spectacular – the bougainvillea in the hedge, the May-flowering Jacaranda tree – but I wouldn’t say it is the best time of year for a garden in Egypt.

Now, however, as we gear up for the start of summer after yesterday’s “Spring Festival”*, we have some glorious colours on the pergola and in the herbaceous borders, in all shades from salmon pink to deep, luxuriant crimson:

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It is likely that the weather will continue hot and dry for the foreseeable future. That said, we can never be quite sure: A week ago, we had a heavy, overcast day, the light ominously grey tinged with orange, followed by  a night of spectacular lightning and thunder and a downpour that soaked everything.

The climbing rose (variety uncertain – no label when bought) is adorned with beautiful blooms, as you can see in the slideshow above. It climbs from the right of the pergola across the front where it is met by white jasmine (J. officinale) and honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica). Behind, the poor Ipomoea (Morning Glory) ripped by an unfeeling gardener from its original position while still in the pot, tearing I don’t know how many precious roots, is clearly recovering well (below left).

While the honeysuckle on the pergola isn’t flowering yet,  it is well away along the green fence nearby, with lovely flowers scenting the air:

All these honeysuckle plants, and many more besides in the Jasmine Garden, originated as layered branches from the mother plant, bought from a nursery several years ago. Other “descendants” are to be found in a garden elsewhere in New Cairo, and on a balcony in Alexandria!

The bottle brush (Callistemon citrinus) is particularly lovely right now, the brilliant red stamens of its flowers tipped with yellow:

The bottlebrush originates in Australia and is not uncommon in Egypt, although it is something of a specialist shrub; there are specimens on sale at the Spring Flower Show this year.

Several other plants in our garden are of South African origin, including the plumbago (P. capensis), both white and blue – which generally flowers later in the summer – and the spectacular trailing African daisy or Osteospermum fruiticosum/ecklonis. 

These are excellent at filling in space; if anything, they are inclined to sprawl a little too much, as well as seed themselves everywhere (including in the lawn!), so they need to be controlled.

Another couple of border sprawlers are the rose geranium Pelargonium graveolens (or maybe capitatum) and tansy or Tanacetum. In truth, I am not sure which species of these two herbs I have in the herbaceous borders: I have moaned before about the lack of labels on plants in every nursery I know in Cairo (and the “top professionals” at the Spring Flower Show are not much better). But the plants are true winners in terms of filling in space, and lovely for long-lasting masses of flowers (tansy) and striking green foliage (geranium – her flowers are insignificant and don’t last long, but even so the bees appreciate them):

One odd thing about all these beautiful flowers is that none of them appeared in ancient Egyptian gardens, as far as we know. I wonder about tansy: quite apart from its many medicinal properties (e.g. anti-inflammatory and insecticidal), its name is derived from the Greek athanasia or immortal since it has preservative properties – ideal for mummification, one might think.

Lastly in my review of the early summer colours of our garden, one of my favourites: lavender (Lavandula). We have two seedlings of Lavandula spica from Italy to be planted out when they have grown a little more. They promise greenish leaves and aromatic deep purple flowers. Our two locally-sourced plants, with grey leaves and blue-ish spikes, are also flowering this year, a relatively rare occurrence in my experience of the plant in Egypt:

Lavender

 

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Fields of surprises

Our journeys into Fayyum have been full of fascination: Beautiful countryside, occasionally with gentle hills, and wide open vistas across the fields; a protected area, with lakes and waterfalls; myriad birds, both resident and migratory, from hunter-diver kingfishers to bee-eaters wheeling and calling overhead; and, all around us, a sense of man’s presence since ancient times.

I love the farms and fields. There is such precision and familiarity about the wheat crop standing tall, now ripening fast to a lovely golden hue as harvest-time approaches. Precision because the cereals are sown in strictly-defined plots within the fields; familiarity because you see exactly the same scene in ancient Egyptian tomb paintings of paradise in the world beyond this, though the cereals would have been emmer wheat and barley.

Paradise, for an ancient Egyptian ruler or notable, was portrayed as a well-ordered and productive land of bountiful harvests, with crops ready for gathering, animals well-fed and fattened, and an estate manager keeping a careful eye on the farm workers – no chance of slacking, even in the next world.

Back to the present, and everywhere piles of harvested “berseem” (clover) are in process of being transported from field to animal pen as fodder for buffaloes, cattle, horses and donkeys. Bare plots are rapidly ploughed and replanted, and summer crops are already appearing: corn, for example.

Close to Lake Qarun, we are stopped in our tracks by a new discovery: The earth is ablaze with gorgeous marigolds (Calendula officinalis) in bloom; nearby, the air is suffused with the scent of flowering chamomile – most likely German chamomile or Matricaria recutita. I have never seen the herbs growing in the field in Egypt. Both contain valuable substances used in formulating natural remedies, especially C. officinalis; and I buy dried chamomile for infusions from a local health store.

This year, I have had some success with German chamomile planted in raised bed 2 – see the little picture above, lower right. I’m growing it on a very small scale, but it is now flowering and, according to my wonderful RHS Encyclopedia of Herbs*, I need to get harvesting the fresh young flowers for use in infusions or to freeze for later on. It can be dried, but the volatile oils will evaporate rapidly.

A little beyond these fields, we find yet another herb. At first glance, it looks like Queen Anne’s lace (Ammi majus), a common hedgerow plant in the English countryside when I was a child; but, on closer inspection, it is somewhat different. As we ask the farmers about it, one of them tells us it is “khella”, and it is used medicinally to treat kidney problems.

A little research in the Encyclopedia identifies it as Ammi visnaga, part of the Apiaceae family, related to carrots (Daucus carota) and ajowan or Trachyspermum ammi:

This is a plant with an amazing history in Egypt: mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus, a medical text dating from the New Kingdom some 3,500 years ago, it was used to relieve fever and for the treatment of kidney stones. It is known to be a valuable vascular dilator that does not lower blood pressure – hence its continuing use today.

In the 1950s, investigation of the oil in its seeds identified a substance (khellin) that has proved effective in relieving the symptoms of asthma.

I read that the seeds are also added to “mesh”,  a white cheese with a story of its own. Described by Magda Mehdawy and Amr Hussein in their book on ancient Egyptian food* as “aged cheese”, it was – and perhaps still is – left to mature in clay pots for at least a year. Maybe this is the white cheese I have seen in the Imhotep Museum at Saqqara – food for a snack made some 4,500 years ago, which puts a whole new light on the term “aged”! Frustratingly, when I investigate the list of ingredients on a jar of the stuff in a local supermarket, I find no mention of “khella”. Clearly, it may have changed somewhat…

*Royal Horticultural Society Encyclopedia of Herbs, Deni Bown, pub. by Dorling Kindersley, London 

* The Pharaoh’s Kitchen, Magda Mehdawy and Amr Hussein, pub. by AUC Press, Cairo

Allium power

This weekend I have been gathering in the onions (Allium cepa). They are nice and dry, and easy to lift.

Onions ready to lift  7.16

The crop is modest: about 1.5 kg this time. Some – perhaps half a kilo – were taken previously, and I have left a small patch in the bed to collect later. The bulbs vary in size, from small to pretty respectable. The soil preparation in this end of raised bed 4 was perhaps inadequate – just a dressing of compost – whereas the rest of the bed was dug out and treated the hugelkultur way before filling in with mixed soil, sand and compost on top. There was no supplementary feeding.
With these caveats, the onions have turned out well: firm, juicy and aromatic, with no sign of going to seed. If they are small, that suits me well: I don’t fling my onions about when I cook, or they overpower the myriad flavours I love in vegetarian food.

Onion harvest 1    7.16

Still, the shallots (A. cepa Aggregatum) in raised bed 2 are behind, and it will be a while before I can lift them. The leaves are surprisingly green, given the summer heat, and the bulbs have not really formed, but since the shallots were sown as seeds rather than planted as sets (or baby bulbs, like the onions) this is perhaps to be expected. The few I have are in any case something of an experiment as I’ve never grown them before, but I like the flavour and decided to give them a whirl.

Shallots 7.16

Personally, I’m not very attached to the Allium family, but their versatility makes them a valuable addition to the kitchen. Expert organic gardener Charles Dowding considers them a “fine vegetable to grow as well as to eat.” He finds their long, round leaves and upright habit “strangely inspiring” among the otherwise timid early spring veg in his British garden. And, as he notes, they are the basis of most soups and many savoury dishes, and thus truly a valuable part of the kitchen garden*.

Onions are so widely used in Middle Eastern cooking as to be a staple. Meat and fish dishes; soups; vegetable stews like okra cooked in tomato sauce with or without chunks of meat; pickles; and salads – all of them would lack an essential element without onions. They are also the crowning glory of a simple meal such as koshari* or megadarra*, fried to a crisp golden colour and sprinkled liberally on top.

There is a curious cross-over between Middle Eastern cuisine and an Italian recipe for cipolline in agrodolce mentioned by the doyenne of C20 British cookery writers, Elizabeth David, in “Italian Food”*. Here, the onions are cooked briefly in water, then gently sauteed in olive oil before adding vinegar, bay leaf, cloves, sugar and salt. Claudia Roden has a similar recipe in her “Book of Middle Eastern Food”*, but with the addition of sultanas and mint, and without the cloves.

The roots of onions are lost in the mists of time. Ancient Egyptians grew them, ate them and used them medicinally. It’s a cliche that the pyramid-builders were fed rations of bread, onions and barley beer. That’s a spartan diet on which to build the only remaining Wonders of the World: surely there were lentils in there too? Alliums were among the food supplies found in King Tutankhamen’s tomb and they are seen in some wall paintings in the tombs of minor officials of ancient Egypt.

Nowadays, every street stall selling the national breakfast dish of wholemeal flat bread and ful beans will also have spring onions to accompany them… An interesting way to start the day, you might think.

In medicine, the juice has valuable diuretic and expectorant properties, lowers blood pressure and blood sugar, and eases gastric complaints. Taken externally, it is useful against boils and acne. Onions were certainly known as a weapon in the herbal armoury in late medieval/Renaissance England: the diarist John Aubrey mentions the proverb*:

Eat Leekes in Lide (Lent) and ramsins in May
And all the yeare after, the physitians may play.

Ramsins, the charming Old English word for onions, were prescribed for treating colds and coughs. I love the choice of words in Old English: for example, “pilewort” (lesser celandine) leaves nothing to the imagination!

Chives 7.16

Final flourish on the theme of onions must go to our trusty chives (A. schoenoprasum). They have been a wonderful feature of the herb bed for years, produce flowers for the bees and propagate for the humans in abundance, and add heaps of flavour to my salad bowl!

Notes:

Organic Gardening the Natural No-dig Way, Charles Dowding, Green Books

Koshari and megadarra are dishes of rice and lentils with or without the addition of small pasta shapes, served with hot tomato sauce and fried onion garnish, and a staple of the diet for millions across the Middle East and North Africa.

Italian Food, Elizabeth David, Penguin Books

A New Book of Middle Eastern Food, Claudia Roden, Penguin Books

John Aubrey, C17 diarist, quoted in The Gardens of the British Working Class, Margaret Willes, Yale University Press

Packing a punch: a feast of fruit (we hope!)

We are watching our fruit trees, waiting on tenterhooks. Compared to last summer, we are promised a bumper harvest. In some cases that wouldn’t be difficult as we had nil, or a mere 4, fruits in 2015 partly because our trees are still quite young. In other cases, the trees have raced ahead this year. But it’s wise not to be over-confident: you never know what pests may creep in while the back is turned.
First, the date palm. We have a first crop of Zaghloul dates close to being ripe. Over the past month they have turned from green to a reddish colour, which means they will soon be ready to harvest. Widely cultivated in Egypt, the Zaghloul is long (up to 7cm or so) and slender, red turning brown to black as it over-ripens, with a woody texture and sweet taste but – to my way of thinking – a tendency to leave a dry sensation on the palate that is not so welcome.
Back in late March, my husband turned his hand for the first time to pollinating the strands, as many farmers and gardeners do. This meant clambering up a high step ladder with a bundle of pollen-filled staves obtained from a local “a’attar” shop, where you buy seeds and other basic supplies, and brushing them against the female inflorescence, hoping that enough pollen had been transferred to do the job.

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It worked! This is the first time the date palm has borne fruit since we bought it 4 years ago, and it’s something of a triumph.
Next, the guava tree. Unexpectedly this has turned into one of my favourites; I had never previously liked the fruit for its tendency to be tart rather than sweet and for the unavoidable seeds, like so much grape shot seemingly designed to find gaps among the teeth. But closer acquaintance with the fruit of our tree, an apple guava, has persuaded me otherwise and I can’t wait to start gathering this season’s crop. They are still green and on the small side (see below, left), but hopefully by late August we shall start picking them.

An interesting point about the guava tree is its medicinal uses, particularly in alleviating coughs: it is used in cough medicine here in Egypt, and you can make an infusion of the leaves for the same purpose. The fruit is loaded with vitamin C: four times as much as an orange, in fact!
Meanwhile, the lemon tree has excelled, producing countless fruit after bearing just 4 last year (above, right). Although the fruit are on the very vigorous root stock – and there isn’t a single orange on the scion – we have much to be thankful for as lemons are a staple in our kitchen.
Just across the lawn from the lemon, near the pergola, we have a small satsuma tree. It hasn’t thrived since we planted it some 4 years ago, bearing no fruit at all after the first year. But TLC, in the form of compost and manure, and attention to the water supply, mean it now has a good crop of fruit, hopefully to be harvested in the winter – below, at left:


Then the kumquat (above right) – the biggest surprise of them all. Originally planted on the basis that it was a satsuma tree, it turned out to be of a different species and is now bearing a fourth generous crop. At first, I was mystified as to how I might use the fruit, but regular readers will know that I discovered the joy of marmalade-making, producing small batches of delicious, fully organic conserve that is sweet rather than bitter and packed with goodness. This season’s crop is eagerly anticipated!
Lastly, the pear tree. After several barren years, it has made a supreme effort and produced two fruit: one a normal size, the other somewhat stunted. We wonder, discuss, speculate about what the beautiful full-size pear will taste like: with each sun-filled day, it turns a little less green, a little more golden.

Pear 7.16
After the successes, the inevitable failures, not that I would wish to dwell on them: the grand total of two plums that simply disappeared while we were away in June; and the (reputed) lime trees that compensate for an absence of fruit by bearing the most atrocious thorns of any tree I know. Plus the figs, refusing to thrive even though I hear that figs are so hardy they “grow anywhere”. Not in our garden they don’t!

Basil’s hidden secrets

I have always had an affinity for basil. It’s a curious thing, but certain plants draw me to them, perhaps for their perfume, or the colour and form of their blooms, or perhaps simply for the unbounded exuberance of their bright green, fresh foliage, so full of vitality that I just can’t resist it. I think, with basil, that last point is the key.

Now, by a curious twist of fortune, I find myself being treated with basil as a homeopathic remedy. And as I delve into the nature of the plant, I have come to realise that it is packed with so many nutrients and compounds of potential value in treating illness and promoting health as to be counted a treasure.

Indians have always known this. Tulsi, Ocimum sanctum Linn. (or O. tenuiflorum) has been regarded as a sacred plant for thousand of years. Mentioned in Ayurvedic texts, it was used as an adaptogen to balance the many processes in the body, and to promote vitality; as a treatment for malaria, different forms of poisoning, inflammation, heart disease, stomach disorders, and colds and coughs. In my case, it has been prescribed for a severe attack of bronchitis with asthma that went on for months earlier this year, and severely curtailed my capacity to look after the garden. So my beloved basil is rallying to support my health in a way I would never have anticipated.

This is not sweet basil (O. basilicum), a close relative much used in Italian food from a garnish for pizzas to pesto sauce for pasta. It is a stronger, perennial herb growing up to 2 meters tall, with strongly aromatic elliptical leaves and elongate racemes of usually white flowers. One species has bright green stems and leaves (“Rama” or Bright Tulsi) while another, with dark green or purple leaves and stems, is known as “Shyama” or dark Tulsi.

I am pretty sure that what I have previously referred to as “Egyptian basil” could well be O. sanctum, and – if it is – then we have several wonderful specimens growing right here in the Jasmime Garden, including one several years old that is taller than I am:

 

There are plenty more, all cultivated from cuttings taken from one or two mother plants brought in when we began to cultivate the land.
Tulsi 7.16
Almost continually in bloom throughout the year, the basil is a magnet for insects of all kinds, especially the bees from the rooftop hives, and including many moths and butterflies. They, in turn, attract birds to the garden, so establishing a virtuous circle with the basil at the centre.

This fits well with the sacred plant’s reputation. Deeply revered among Hindus, it is often to be found at the centre of domestic gardens in India, carefully tended and watered (usually by the women of the household). Its wood is used for rosaries or japa malas or Tulsi malas. I regret to say that I have used its stems and branches as supports for the mange tout, but I may rethink: it seems somehow disrespectful.

What is utterly fascinating, however, is the vast array of compounds and chemicals hidden inside the leaves, stems and flowers of this remarkable plant. Among them are eugenol and eugenic acid, urosolic acid, linalool, caryophyllene and estragol; saponins, flavonoids and tannins; and fatty acids and sitosterol, depending on which part of the plant is under examination. Up to now we have just scratched the surface of the substances available and how they work, usually in combination, to treat illnesses and conditions from diabetes and eczema to peptic ulcers and even certain types of cancer.

O. sanctum also has its uses in agro-homeopathy, and in natural treatments for agricultural uses. It is effective against a fungal condition affecting rice and as a deterrent against the root knot nematode. Companion planting benefits tomatoes, I have read; oddly enough, again as if by instinct, I have it growing in three of our five raised beds, often in close proximity to the cherry tomato vines.
Basil and toms 7.16I wouldn’t say that O. sanctum is the tidiest or most graceful of plants in the garden. It has a tendency to be leggy and ungainly, with spindly racemes of flowers and seeds blowing around in the wind, and a carpet of flotsam on the ground beneath it. But it is one of nature’s undoubted wonders and I absolutely treasure it in my garden.

The power of flowers – 2

There has been an interesting response to “the power of flowers” post. I think all of us who treasure gardens, and do our best to cultivate the land sensitively, respond to their beauty and appreciate all that they give us. More widely, I’m inclined to think that of all the “kingdoms” defined in taxonomy, the plant kingdom is the most fascinating and perhaps, in general, the least appreciated.

I read recently that 20 years ago, “the therapeutic potential of more than 90% of botanical species remains to be studied.”* Not: understood or tapped, but: studied.

This set me thinking: In the first place, I doubt we have made great inroads in examining that 90% since the early 1990s, so the statistics won’t have changed all that much. In the second place, when you consider the importance of some plants in medical breakthroughs – from cinchona bark (genus: Cinchona) for treating malaria to the Madagascar periwinkle or vinca (Catharanthus rosea) for childhood leukaemia – then who knows what incredible potential there might be in our gardens. I guess we are all, unknowingly, growing a pharmacopoeia out there!

The ancient Egyptians, it seems, had a wide variety of plants at their disposal for treating complaints as varied as liver disease and inflamed eyes. These included blue and white lilies of the Nymphaea genus – erroneously referred to as lotus plants by Egyptologists – and the poppy (Papaver somniferum).

Lilies in flower, and lotus leaves (at right), at Kew Gardens in 2014

Lilies in flower, and lotus leaves (at right), at Kew Gardens in 2014

It seems that medical practitioners in ancient Egypt – who were first and foremost scribes, I am happy to note – were aware that soaking some plant materials in alcohol could release the active substances. So lily leaves, used for liver complaints, were steeped in beer or wine overnight. The physicians could not have known that the substances were alkaloids, but they observed the effects and drew their conclusions.

The use of poppy seeds is rather more baffling: the only prescription we know of is for mixing them with the faeces of flies, to be administered to a persistently crying child. An alarming way to pacify an infant! Later in history, they were combined with several other ingredients, including nightshade (see below) to make a soothing skin ointment.

Among the problems in understanding the work of ancient physicians is the difficulty of identifying the ingredients they used with any certainty; the use of complex mixtures, which makes it hard to discern which were the most important components; and the serendipitous nature in which sources, usually papyrus rolls, have survived. The handling of surgical cases – battle wounds and the like – seems more straightforward to grasp.

All of this brings me back to what we have in our garden. The much loved vincas that we used to grow extensively in our garden in the Gulf are here (but not flowering yet: they like it hot!) We have numerous herbs, and celery (Apium graveolens), that the ancient Egyptians knew and used; interestingly, celery leaves were occasionally incorporated in garlands, perhaps as a way to combine a rich green colour and strong smell with colourful blooms.

But, as I noted before, we don’t have the flowers they treasured: no cornflowers, no mandrakes, no poppies. And no woody nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) either. Berries from this plant were included in a mixed garland placed in the innermost coffin of King Tutankhamen, though the significance of the choice is not understood.**

The variety of flowering plants in the Jasmine garden reflects the wide-reaching nature of commerce nowadays – with plumbago (P. capensis) from South Africa and dwarf sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus) from England, as well as calendula which seems to thrive just about everywhere. Also, perhaps, our passion for something new – creating dwarf and other varieties to fit whatever size pots we choose!

  • See: Ancient Egyptian Medicine by John Nunn, British Museum Press, 1996
  • ** From An Ancient Egyptian Herbal by Lisa Manniche, AUC Press, 2006

Balsam for the skin

The Arabic word “balsam”, from the root “balsama” meaning to dress (a wound), treat, restore to health, has a direct link with European languages.  From it comes our own word balsam, a healing agent; and most likely also balm, a substance that heals or soothes pain.

One great soothing agent, well known as a component of skin creams, toothpaste, mouthwash, and even tissues for sore noses, is Aloe vera. It has been present for millennia in Egypt and has recently begun to appear in natural healthcare lines made locally and sold in upmarket health stores.

Aloe products

We have a young aloe plant in a pot at the front of the house. Recently, I repotted it at a favourable moment in the Northern transplantation time, separating one of the babies and transferring it to a separate pot. Now, the mother plant has got carried away and produced a flower bud although she is no more than 30cm high.

Aloe mother & baby 2 2.16An article in New Scientist last year* described how the gel found inside the leaves of aloe was used by Queen Cleopatra as a skin softener; and how it was employed by the Greek surgeon Dioscorides to treat soldiers in the Roman army for all sorts of complaints, from sore throats to bleeding wounds.

But apart from Cleopatra – who came rather late in antiquity – there is no trace of aloe vera in our books on ancient Egyptian medicine or medical herbs. One thing to remember is that it is difficult to match ancient names with particular plants, so identification can be tricky. But no trace of the plant at all?

I have therefore assumed that aloe vera was introduced to Egypt in late classical times, much as the article outlined – travelling with soldiers or merchants along the frankincense and myrrh route from southern Arabia, and then perhaps being traded across the Red Sea.

Then I struck gold. On a recent visit to Egypt’s National Museum in Tahrir Square I came across a lovely little ceramic pot, at least 5,000 years old, decorated with images of a boat, ostriches and – yes, aloe vera plants!

Dating to the pre-dynastic Naqada II** period, (3,500-3,100 BC), the pot is a gorgeous pinkish-red with darker red decoration. And what a find it was! Here was a tantalising glimpse of Egypt at a time when significant areas of the land were covered by savannah, and giraffes, elephants and ostriches still roamed.

What I still don’t know, however, is whether the ancient Egyptians had developed medical applications for the gel. Any number of ancient mummies and skeletons have been found showing marks from arrow and club wounds: more than likely physicians such as Imhotep, adviser to Old Kingdom pharaohs, would have known about its healing properties. They may even have used it to staunch bleeding. But I am speculating.

What we do know is that aloes as a genus originated millions of years ago in southern Africa. Plants – like animals – migrate, and they made their way north-, west- and east-wards, taking root in areas from central Africa to Madagascar and Egypt . Aloe vera most likely emerged in Yemen or on the island of Socotra; there are now 7 wild species in the area that are very close relatives.

Coming back to contemporary uses for the gel, it’s a wonderful product for tired and scraped gardener’s hands. My little pot of balsam from a company named Nefertari – motto “proudly handmade in Egypt” – is a godsend: so soothing!

*”Smooth Operator” by Stephanie Pain, New Scientist, 18 July 2015

** Naqada era artefacts are from the area of Abydos in Upper Egypt. In the UK, a good place to see a significant collection is the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at University College London, where the stunning cache of very ancient finds arguably just about outweighs the eccentric method of displaying them.