Writing this a couple of days after changing the clocks, an hour forward, pleases me as spring is here. It lifts my spirit as this winter has been particularly draining at least I have found it so. The weather isn't great but come on it is still March. This morning as I woke and dozed there was the beginning of a dawn chorus. I particularly love it when it is warm enough to sleep with a bedroom window open inviting the full blown dawn performance, wren and robin, blackbird and thrush, I'll tolerate the woodpigeons, (do I have a choice). Here is my way of coping with the woodpigeons. If you listen carefully they are saying, you stuuupid pigeon, you stuuupid pigeon. They don't know that, they don't speak English, they speak woodpigeon but the English translation gives me a laugh at their expense. Together in their dawn chorus these little birds that know it is spring can sing me awake every morning until in a few weeks their parental duties preoccupy them and I have to sing myself awake.
Back to the weather, not great but the wonderful light, that whiteness and lightness of spring its there never mind what the short term weather offers up. White and light - spring - spirit lifted.
This morning my wife and I were in the garden doing a bit of spring planting, In some new beds just created this year, my wife, the gardener, planted some newly acquired perennials. Meanwhile I did a bit of weeding, trimming and light labouring, great. Then we moved, together to the newly created raised beds for vegetables. Early days but planting a few cabbage plants feels better than having bare earth. A frame and netting to deter the woodpigeons. A modest start. But then, proof that it is spring no matter what the short term weather has in store for us as Easter weekend approaches. Joy of joy, just over the fence something that says in the grand scheme of things it is spring. Don't listen to that doom laden breed the weather forecaster hourly on the radio. Those who really know about these things have arrived from The Medditerranean or North Africa for their summer stay with us. The chiffchaffs are back, hurrah. We were digging and generally pottering about and there he was chiffing and chaffing and chiffing and chaffing to his little heart's content and filling me with whiteness and lightness. His eyes and ears don't experience what I experience because he is a chiffchaff in a chiffchaff world - a parallel world, not a lesser world just a different world.
With spring and summer and vegetable growing on my mind I have been thinking recently about the Solanums. Those with which we are most familiar are those species and there cultivated varieties that we eat. But first just to say that the Solanum genus is large and complex and subject to discussion among botanists about which species should be grouped together. I guess the increasing use of genetic (DNA) techniques to support categorisation of species will sort that out in time. Sufficient to say at the moment that there are thought to be 1500 - 2000 species that fit into the Solanum genus.
We are all familiar with Solanum tuberosum, the potato, with around 4000 varieties. then Solanum lycopersicum, the tomato, with around 7500 varieties. Top this off with a smaller number of varieties of Solanum melongena, the aubergine.
These three species with their cultivated varieties, many commercialised around the world are very important economically significant members of the cast of characters. We will certainly be growing tomatoes this year, maybe potatoes, not aubergines - sorry not a fan. Although, back tracking a bit - if someone would like to cook me a lovely ratatouille I'll eat it with pleasure and kiss the cook on the cheek.
Botanists classify plants based on a range of characteristics but for the flowering plants, it is the flowers that play a large part in categorising and grouping plant species into genera and families.
Sometimes I think about the flowers as the plants' faces and just as with human families one can see resemblances. There is something reassuring about these resemblances in humans. The features that we spot and which enable us to make a pretty safe assumption that those two people sitting at a table in the café are sisters or mother and daughter, brothers and so on take no account of the individual's character. We cannot see that - the resemblance does not define the detail of the habits or character of the individual.
Back to the Solanums. They certainly present a very similar face to the world. Five white, pink or purple petals, five sepals and prominent yellow anthers. Only with increased familiarity would we know that some of them have edible parts and have become economically important.
As I suggested earlier, sometimes familial groups have resemblances but different characters, this way dark secrets may be found. Black sheep of the family, misfits or oddballs or unpleasant types. You probably won't be surprised to hear that there are Solanums with little or no culinary value or even worse, distinctly toxic if eaten. Although in some knowledgeable cultures even these Solanum black sheep have been found a place in cooking or medicine.
So here is the big reveal. Here on The Park we have a Solanum black sheep growing quietly in a wooded area. At least agree to respect and value it for its relatives even if you struggle to love this individual. Admire its broader pedigree. Make room for it because it is the food plant of many species of moth larvae. No moths no bats. No bats, no black backed summer nights. It is Solanum nigrum. The Black Nightshade (toxic but not to be confused with Deadly Nightshade a different species from a different plant family).
Before those bats emerge to fill the black backed night I will welcome the blackbird's evening song, singing me towards sleep.