Nature Observations (lockdown 2021)

leaves

 

We often talk about time as if it is real, yet according to Albert Einstein and many scientists, time is only an illusion. Time is subjective and personal, and everyone has their own concept of time. In Zen Buddhism, the founder of Soto Zen, Dogen Zenji (1200–1253), also wrote about time or ‘uji’ in Japanese, which is usually translated as ‘Being-Time’. The most common interpretation of the two kanji characters is: “time is existence and that all existence is time.” According to Dogen, we are time, and time is us. Time is a complex subject, and I don’t intend to dwell on it here, but personally, the lockdown has made me become more aware of my relationship with time.

During the pandemic, my digital calendar and paper planners were mostly blank for about 2 years. I had no work events or social engagements to attend, and no upcoming holiday to look forward to. I am sure that many people experienced some sort of anxieties when all the short and long term plans suddenly came to a halt. And with so much ‘time’ on our hands, how were we going to spend it?

Perhaps for the first time in life, I did not have to check my watch, clocks and calendar frequently. I stopped planning, and after a while, time became ‘insignificant’. I could ‘waste’ it day after day without feeling guilty about not being productive enough. When I finally let go of ‘time’, I felt liberated. I learned to slow down and live each day as it comes.

Instead of obsessively checking the clocks for time and calendar for dates, I began to observe time through plants and flowers when I went out for walks during the lockdown. Nature became the measuring device for me.

 

Winter

Perhaps it is a misconception to think that flowers do not bloom during winter. In fact, there are many evergreen shrubs and flowers that thrive in the winter like Snowdrops, Hellebores, Eranthis, Primrose, and Viburnum tinus Eve Price etc. During my lockdown walks, I would come across some blooming flowers despite the cold weather. With less distractions and stimulations, I found joy in identifying unknown plant species during my strolls around London.

 

Hedera colchica  Algerian iris

Hellebores

japanese skimmia  Iris foetidissima

First left: Hedera colchica/ Persian Ivy; First right: Algerian iris; 2nd row: Hellebores; bottom left: Japanese skimmia; Bottom right: Iris foetidissima

 

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of winter plants or flowers are the array of vibrant colours. There are bright pinks, reds, violets, and yellows – these are colours normally associated with spring/summer, yet they can be seen during the winter too. Time passes quickly when you place your focus on the surrounding nature rather than on yourself – the lockdown probably created an environment for introspection, yet too much of it would make us too self-focused due to less interactions with the outside world.

 

Red twig dogwoods  red maple leaves

img_5079

Eranthis   Mahonia

 Viburnum tinus Eve Price

Viburnum tinus Eve Price  Hellebores

First left: Red twig dogwoods; First right: maple leaves: 2nd: snowdrops; 3rd left: Eranthis; 3rd right: Mahonia; 4th & Bottom left: Viburnum tinus Eve Price; Bottom right: Hellebore

 

Euonymus europaeus  Chaenomeles

Chaenomeles

WEIGELA PINK POPPET

Magenta Hebe

First left: Euonymus europaeus; first right & 2nd: Chaenomeles; 3rd: Weigela Pink Poppet; last row: Magenta Hebe

 

Crocus tommasinianus 'Ruby Giant'

Erica carnea, the winter heath

Clematis armandii

Primrose – Primula vulgaris

First: Crocus tommasinianus ‘Ruby Giant’; 2nd: Erica carnea/the winter heath; 3rd: Viburnum tinus Eve Price; 4th: Clematis armandii; Bottom: Primrose (Primula vulgaris)

 

My favourite time of the year is autumn and spring. Around late February and early March, the day light hours would last longer, which means spring is in the air. The gradual increase of sunshine and day light makes a huge diference to the ecology and humans. We start to notice daffodils blooming everywhere, and seeing the golden yellow colour covering the parks immediately uplifts our moods and spirits.

 

daffadils  daffadils

daffadils

daffadils

daffadils

Daffodils

 

On the grounds, there are daffodils, and when we look up, we would see seas of sumptuous white and pink magnolias over our heads. Magnolia shrubs seem to be ommonly planted in people’s gardens in London as I tend to see them a lot when I walk around my neighbourhood.

 

Magnolia  Magnolia

pink magnolia

Magnolia

White and pink magnolia

 

For those (including me) who yearned to go to Japan but couldn’t for the last few years, the joy of viewing cherry blossom seemed to have become a distant memory. Yet London is also a good place for sakura viewing; even though it is not as spectatular as Japan, the number of Japanese cherry trees being planted in the U.K. have been increasing over the years. As far as I am aware, there is only one white-flowering cherry tree (Prunus x yedoensis) standing alone the middle of an open field in Hampstead heath, and when it blooms, it is quite stunning. The next obvious place to view sakura would be Regent’s Park, both inside and on the outer ring.

 

cherry blossom

cherry blossom

cherry blossom

cherry blossom

A white-flowering cherry tree/ Yoshino cherry (Prunus x yedoensis) in Hamspstead heath

 

cherry tree

cherry blossom

cherry trees

cherry blossom

Cherry trees in Regent’s park

 

The lesser-known sakura viewing spot is the residential neighbourhood, Swiss Cottage. The open space in around Hampstead theatre and Swiss Cottage library features rows of white-flowering cherry trees (Prunus x yedoensis) and pink-flowering cherry trees (Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis Rosea’). When the flowers are in bloom, they do look quite spectacular and make you feel you are in Japan for a second. Since it is a recreation space, it may even be possible to have a viewing picnic party there (weather permitted).

 

cherry blossom

cherry blossom  cherry blossom

cherry blossom

cherry blossom

The stunning pink-flowering cherry trees (Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis Rosea’) in Swiss Cottage

 

In spring, we would often see a lot of beautiful camellias in various colours, especially Camellia japonica, which is the predominate species of the genus. Besides that, we might be able to spot some ravishing rhododendrons or azaleas ( particularly at Kew Gardens) blooming in people’s gardens.

 

Camellia Japonica  img_5512 

camellia

img_5643  img_5321-min

img_5727

Camellia – Top & 2nd rows: Japonica Camellia

 

rose

Rhododendron

Rhododendron

buddleia

primrose

First: rose; 2nd & 3rd: Rhododendron; 4th: buddleia; botton: primrose

 

If you are not a fan of showy ornamental plants/flowers, there are plenty of wild spring flowers that are captivating too. Personally, I am quite fascinated by gorse/ulex (commonly seen around the UK especially in Scotland), which is an evergreen shrub with bright yellow pea-like flowers and spiny leaves. The flowers are eible and can be used as a medicinal tea, as well as a natural dye, producing a yellow colour on the fabrics.

 

Forsythia

gorse

Top: Forsythia; Bottom: common gorse

 

Spring is also the season to enjoy various lilac/blue/violet flowers like Ceanothus, Periwinkles, wisteria, lavender and bluebells. Ceanothus are popular garden shrubs in the UK, and their lilac flowers are particularly impressive.

However, when it comes to popularity, wild bluebells certainly rank quite high up on the list. Besides cherry blossoms, the bluebell seasons are highly anticipated by many too. It is quite easy to spot bluebells in spring, but the best places to view are still in the woods. Whenever I see a stunning carpet of blue in the woodlands, I would feel instantly quite ecstatic. There are two main types of bluebells in the U.K.: the British bluebell, (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) and the Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica), and the native ones are being protected by law as they are under threat now.

 

Ceanothus Yankee Point

Ceanothus Yankee Point

Periwinkle

bluebell

bluebells

bellflower

Top & 2nd: Ceanothus; 3rd: Periwinkle; last three: bluebells

 

When I immerse myself in nature, I could see the cycles of nature and life. Flowers bloom, wither, and are replaced by other species as the seasons change. When there is a beginning, there will be an end… though the cycle will continue to repeat itself indefinitely. It does not matter if we can’t figure out what ‘time’ is, the more important thing is to live in the present. We are now living in a more precarious and unpredictable world, hence we ought to enjoy each day as it comes. If you feel down/ stressed/ anxious, why not head outside and spend time in nature to get lost in time? I highly recommend it.

 

Blackberry Hills – a tranquil eco resort in Munnar

blackberry hills resort

 

I was due to leave India for Hong Kong after the Aranya conference at the end of February, but at the time, COVID-19 was starting to spread in Hong Kong, hence I decided to prolong my trip at the last minute. Luckily, the airline did not charge me for the change due to the circumstances. Looking back, I guess I was extremely fortunate because there were very few cases in India then, and I managed to enjoy another 2 weeks traveling around Kerala.

Since I was feeling quite exhausted after the conference, I wanted to relax and recuperate in Munnar for an extra few days. There are a numerous resorts in Munnar and it was not easy to pick one. After a bit of research, I booked the eco-friendly Blackberry Hills nature resort and spa, which is about 20 mins’ drive from the town centre.

Built on the slope of a hill, the resort offers a magnificent views of the Western Ghats. I knew I had picked the right place when I saw the surroundings and view.

 

blackberry hills resort  blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

 

There are 16 cottages over 15 acres of land, and the hotel kindly upgraded me to a larger room with sitting area and a balcony facing a mini forest. This balcony was where I spent most of my time, and it was probably the most tranquil spot during my journey.

Every morning I would hear birds chirping and chatting to each other, which was a joy. In the afternoon, I also saw two Malabar Giant Squirrels (Ratufa indica) jumping from one tree to another. I haven’t stayed at other resorts in Munnar, but I think this resort is perfect for nature-lover and the eco-conscious travellers.

 

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort  blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

Malabar Giant Squirrel

 

There is one restaurant at the resort, which serves Indian and international dishes. The view from the restaurant is splendid, and you can easily enjoy a long lunch here. There is also afternoon tea tasting session where guests can taste different types of tea like green tea, cardonmon tea and masala chai etc.

 

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

 

Besides the stunning environment, I also enjoying chatting to the friendly and hospitable staff. When I asked the manager about an odd-looking fruit growing within the resort’s grounds, he said he wasn’t sure but would find out for me. A day later, after enquiring his botanist friend, he told me that the fruit is called tropical soda apple (solanum viarum). Interestingly, it is is a perennial shrub native to Brazil and Argentina, and an invasive species. The colours of the golf-ball-sized fruit resembles a watermelon, but it is toxic. Yet no one has any idea how this South American plant end up growing in India…

 

blackberry hills resort  blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort  tropical soda apple (solanum viarum)

 

The resort occupies an entire mountain side, and there is a trekking trail that leads all the way down to the nearby village cum tea plantation called Attukad. However, due to hot weather, I abandoned trekking downhill and opted for a late afternoon walk westwards recommended by the restaurant manager. He told me that there is a great sunset spot about 45 mins’ walk west of the resort, and he was right. The sun setting behind the tea plantations and mountain was truly beautiful.

After extending an extra night, I ended up spending 4 nighs at the resort, which enabled me to recuperate fully. I believe that nature has healing powers, hence being surrounded by trees and mountains worked wonders for me, and I was very energised after my stay.

 

munnar  munnar

munnar

munnar

munnar

munnar

munnar

munnar

munnar

 

Munnar: Greenland spice & Ayurvedic garden

greenland garden

 

Munnar is not only famous for tea, you can also find abundance of spices here, and prices are much cheaper than Kochi. I asked the driver to take me to a spice garden, and he said he knew just the place. Greenland spice and ayurvedic garden is located in Thekkady, and it is one of the few spice gardens that is approved by the government.

Out of all the places I visited on the day, this was my favourite. It was fascinating and educational – I highly recommend it. The entry price includes a guided tour (you will need someone to identify and explain all the spices and herbs here) of the garden, which resembles a mini jungle.

 

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden  greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden salvia L

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden Thunbergia mysorensis

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden Musa velutina  greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden torch ginger flower

3rd row: Salvia; 4th row: Thunbergia mysorensis/ Mysore trumpetvine; Bottom left: Pink banana (Musa velutina); Bottom right: torch ginger flower

 

Many of the spices and herbs in the garden are used in ayurveda, which is considered by many scholars to be the oldest healing science. Ayurveda originated in India more than 5,000 years ago, and in sanskrit, it means ‘The Science of Life’. Plant-based treatments in ayurveda may be derived from roots, leaves, fruits, bark, or seeds. Aside from ayurveda, many spices are commonly used in South Indian cooking e.g. cardamon, cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper, ginger, cumin, turmeric and mint etc. Interestingly, many of the ayurvedic plants can also be used as natural dyes, so they are extremely versatile.

South India is world-renown for its ayurveda retreats and centres, and many Westerners would spend weeks or months getting detox and wellness treatments here. After I left Kochi, I spent a few days at a yoga and ayurveda retreat before heading to Munnar. Upon arrival, I had a doctor’s consultation, and was given some plant-based tonic twice a day along side with massage treatments daily to restore body balance. It was an interesting experience, and I particularly enjoyed the healthy and flavourful vegetarian/ayurvedic meals.

 

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden  greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden jackfruit

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden peas

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden  greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden black pepper

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden murikooti

2nd row right: Jackfruits; 3rd row: peas; 4th right: black pepper/Piper nigrum; Bottom row: Murikooti – a wound healing plant with leaves that can be turned into a paste

 

The most exciting part of the tour was seeing cocoa trees and tasting cocoa pulp for the first time. I love eating dark chocolates but I have never seen a cocoa fruit (Theobroma cacao) before. Inside the fruit lies a cluster of cacao beans surrounded by a thin layer of white pulp. The guide opened the fruit and let me tast the white pulp, which was surprisingly juciy and sweet. While some cacao pulp is used in the fermentation process of cocoa beans, most is simply thrown out as waste. It was only recently that cacao pulp is being used as a substitute for refined white sugar. Not long ago, Nestle released a 70% dark chocolate bar in Japan under its KitKat brand that has been sweetened with cacao pulp instead of refined sugar. Yet historically, cacao pulp has always been drank as juice by cacao farmers, and their immediate communities around the world.

 

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden  cocoa

cocoa

nutmeg seed  cardamon seed

1st to 3rd rows: cocoa fruit, bean and pulp; Bottom left: nutmeg seed; Bottom right: cardamon

 

Like most tourist sites, there is a shop located by the exit to avoid you leaving empty-handed, Apart from different varieties of spices, there are also ayurvedic medicine and skincare range available. I went for the mixed spice packs as I think you can’t get much fresher spices than the ones being sold by the spice garden.

 

 

Autumn/winter wild food foraging in Hampstead Heath

hampstead heath

 

Although wild food foraging is nothing new, it has become quite popular in recent years. I think this is due to our growing interest in sustainability and back-to-basics lifestyle after decades of consumerism. As we know, endless purchase of consumer goods and fast fashion does not fulfil our lives, nor does it make us happier.

Yet how can we change our behaviour/lifestyle living in metropolis like London? Besides buying less, recycling more and shopping at the local farmers market, we can also attempt wild food foraging. After a fascinating funghi foraging workshop in Hampstead Heath a few years back, I was keen to learn more about foraging but never managed to do so until I enrolled onto a wild food foraging course with Jason Irving from Foraging Wild Food.

Jason is an experienced forager, herbalist and ethnobotanist. He used to work as head forager at UK’s leading supplier of wild food, Forager Ltd, for two years. Next year, he will be doing his PHD research in Central America, and our one-day course was the last one of the year.

 

hampstead heath

lime tree  lime tree

Lime tree (Tilia spp.)

 

The sun and blue sky made us feel slightly better for being out and about on a cold late autumn/winter’s morning. Since I live not far from Hamsptead Heath, the heath is like my back garden where I would visit in all seasons. However, I had no idea about the vast array of wild food available here besides funghi. The 3-hour walk around the heath was flabbergasting for a newbie like me. I learned a lot about the usage of many seeds and leaves, which not only can be used as herbal medicine, but also in cooking and beverages. Jason also made us a cake and hot drink from wild fruits and herbs, which was surprisingly delicious.

 

Hog weed seed  common sorrel

Left: Hog weed seed; Right: Common sorrel (Rumex acetosa)

 

Although I made some notes and took photos on the day, I don’t think I would be able to differentiate all the edible plants and seeds after just one course. There is still much to learn, and I guess getting a foraging book would be a good start. Since there are many foraging courses available in London, I probably would do another one in the summer when more herbs and ripe fruits are ready to be picked.

 

Ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata)  Hedge bedstraw (Galium mollugo)

Left: Ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata); Right: Hedge bedstraw (Galium mollugo)

 

Although wild food foraging can be fun, there is also the danger of picking poisonous plants without knowing (we often hear that with funghi-picking). Therefore, it is important to do more research or pick with someone more knowledgeable at the beginning.

 

Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)  Elder (Sambucus nigra)

Left: Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) Right: Elder (Sambucus nigra)

 

The issue of global food shortages reminds us that we cannot take our food supply for granted anymore. What if one day we find ourselves in supermarkets full of empty shelves? If this happens, then how would we survive? Wild food foraging is not only about survival skills, it is also about sustainability and reconnecting with nature. If we undertstand the origin of each ingredient that goes into our food, then we are likely to appreciate it more.

 

Stinging nettle (Urtica dioca)  img_4958-min

Left: Stinging nettle (Urtica dioca); Right: Beech (Fagus sylvestris)

 

Sadly, over-foraging has also become an issue in recent years. I was told that many Eastern Europeans would mass pick edible funghi and sell them to restaurants for commercial gains despite the fact that it is illegal to do so. Even the head chef of Noma –often voted as the restaurant in the wold– was accused of illegally picking wild mushrooms in Hampstead Heath 10 years ago.

 

sweet chestnut  yarrow

Left: Sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa); Right: Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

 

Wild food foraging can be a satisfying and uplifting experience, but if we disrupt the eco-system by over-picking, then we are doing more harm than good. At the end of the day, it is crucial to find a balance. If we don’t respect our environment, we may regret it one day when it is too late.

 

hampstead heath

hampstead heath  hampstead heath

hampstead heath