31 October 2009

A step back in time…..

On Friday we hopped on the school bus for the short trip to ‘Le Potager’, an old-fashioned privately-owned estate that dates from Victorian times.  A wonderfully peaceful haven, somewhat at odds with the busyness of our modern world outside its walls.

A couple of buzzes on the bell resulted in the grand gates swinging open.  We trouped through and crunched our way along a sweeping gravel drive.

Past a bamboo ‘forest’ and over a rickety bridge, into the walled gardens.  Gardens, it has to be said, showing the distinct signs of autumn decay.

What sorts of plants would we find growing there and what sorts of uses would they have been put to?

What took our eye first was a sturdy plant with impressive spikes and shiny green leaves. 


Sturdy in that it had pushed its way through the window of the greenhouse, which was vainly trying to contain it in its warmth.  Although we hunted, we didn’t find any signs of fruit or seeds, but we couldn’t help noticing the fresh citrusy smell of the leaves.


Perhaps these were used as a flavouring.

We ventured further into the white-painted greenhouse…..


where we discovered that the plants that had grown there during the spring and summer months had been pulled up in order to let the seeds dry.


In the borders around the greenhouse, flavouring plants such as mint and rosemary flourished still.


We walked underneath archways laced through with roses, their heady scent still lingering on the chilly afternoon air.


In ancient times roses would have been used in medicine (to help stop bleeding and to ease tummy problems) but in the heyday of this garden, rose oil might have been used to make scent and rose water as a flavouring in cooking.  Rose hips, the seed-containing fruit of the rose…..


may very well have been boiled with sugar to make a healthy syrup; full of vitamin C.

The creators of the garden must have loved scented plants.  As well as the many different sweet-smelling roses…..


still-flowering honeysuckle wove its way through the various hedges.


There was an orchard area, where eagle-eyed children were quick to spot one or two apples that had escaped the harvest…..


as well as ‘windfall’ fruits that were equally tasty to children…..


and insects.


There were also some rather odd-looking trees, a little like these ones…..


Closer inspection revealed ‘knobs’ where branches had been cut off or pruned.  For these were ‘espalier’ fruit trees, specially pruned so that they would grow flat against a wall, and not take up too much space.  And tucked down between the branches, another fruit that had escaped the harvest.


Right in the middle of the garden was the most enormous spreading fig tree that I have ever seen.  It was still laden with fruit, which were in the process of turning from green to lush deep purple. 


We left after an hour of using our senses; of tasting, of smelling, of feeling and of seeing.  Pockets bulging with the ‘treasures’ that we had gleaned, we crunched our way back towards the very grand gates, where our bus awaited us; to take us back to the 21st century!

Supplementing the diet

Enakshi brought some seeds to school.  Small, knobby, brown, scented fenugreek seeds.  Seeds that I would normally use, once I had ground them up, when making a curry.

But we weren’t going to use them in a curry.  No; we were going to try and make them sprout.  Using nothing but water and sunlight.  A little like the way Camille made her mung bean seeds sprout.


And once we had got the sprouting ‘bug’ we also decided to try it with alfalfa seeds and azuki beans; you could hunt through your store cupboards to find other seeds to sprout.

Our seeds were layered into a special sprouting container, but you could use a jam jar with holes punched in the lid to let the water drain away.  Each day, someone was in charge of pouring a jug of fresh water through the layers of seeds, and then emptying used water from the bottom tray.

After just one week, my goodness had they sprouted!  See the roots of the mung beans poking through the bottom of the tray.


See the curly shoots of the azuki beans…..


and the jumble of the fenugreek.


Enakshi tells us that her dad loves to eat fenugreek sprouts at breakfast time, seasoned with a little salt and pepper.  I liked the sweetness of the fenugreek sprouts, as well as the nutty taste of the azuki beans.    


Want to taste? 

30 October 2009

Sticky berries

There are a number of yew trees in the school grounds.  At this time of year, they are decorated with bright red berries. 


Sticky bright red berries, as I found when I accidentally trod on one.  Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

closer still

Can you see the dark seed tucked inside the red fleshy outside part?  When I picked apart one of the berries to remove the seed, we saw that it is the red part covering the seed that is so sticky. 


Sticky berries get stuck to things (apart from my shoe and my fingers!)  Things perhaps like the beaks of the birds that find them so tasty.  Birds who then fly off elsewhere and try to rub the stickiness off…..


and in so doing, ensure that the seed is taken to somewhere far from its ‘parent’ tree, to a place where it might eventually be able to grow.

Which takes us to something else rather puzzling.  Look up here.




What you see is a tree with another plant growing on it.  That plant is called mistletoe, and once the flowers have finished, there are lots of white berries.  Berries with seeds inside them.


Sticky white berries with seeds inside them.  Now, can anyone think how a mistletoe plant might find its way to the top of an apple tree?

How are plants the same?

We have been out and about in the school grounds again, this time with a handful of labels and the task of finding some different kinds of plants on which to use them.

Take the cosmos plant.


Literally.  Pull it out of the soil (you see, the flowers are just about finished and we want to collect the seeds for next year) and lay it on the ground.  What parts can you label?  See the leaves?  The stem?


The roots?


Are there any flowers left?  What about seeds?


Look for flowers that have died; petals that have fallen off.


Now let’s move somewhere else.  What types of plants are we labelling here?





How are these two types of plants the same?  How are they different?  What other plants can you label?

29 October 2009

We’re going on a plant hunt…..

Today we went back out into the school grounds to continue our research into what plants grow where.  Among four groups we shared out four distinct areas; the field, the garden, the area under the trees and the adventure playground. 

Soon, one of the groups was busily sketching the plethora of plants that they found.  From lettuce plants…..


to cabbages…..


and from roses…..


to nasturtiums…..


we recorded them all.


Or as many of them as we could in the time available.


The group on the field duly got down close to the ground and dug their fingers in between the ubiquitous blades of grass in search of anything else that might be lurking there.  Clover plants (flowers sadly now finished)…..


and what’s that clinging greenly to the edge of the walkway?


Talking of which, the group which had been allocated the adventure playground was wandering about in a somewhat bewildered manner.  Until, that is, someone spotted something teeny-tiny small, poking up in the gap between the tiles.


And here…..


and here…..


and even here!


But what of the group at play work under the trees.  Well of course they spotted trees; trees like these…..


and trees like these…..


and ones like these.


But they too struggled somewhat when asked to spot things other than trees growing in the area.  There’s not much to see underneath the trees; the sun doesn’t reach it, Sebastian explained.  Plants need the sun to grow well.  Quite.  But then a squeal of excitement as one of their number noticed something winding its tortuous way up a tree (towards the light perhaps).  Not part of the tree, but a different plant altogether.  Do you recognise it?


And what’s this tucked down by the tree’s roots?  Growing on the tree itself.  Haven’t we seen something like this growing somewhere else?


Back in the classroom, we shared what we had found out.  We compared numbers of different plants that we had found in our four different areas; noticed that certain plants seem to be able to grow in different kinds of environments equally well.

Next time you are out and about, keep your eyes open.  While you would not be at all surprised to find plants like these…..


in a flowerbed, maybe something like this…..


might be rather more of a surprise.  I wonder; is it perhaps a wallflower?