Rock Groups

Some of our newer staff members, having obeyed the instruction to park up beyond the tractor shed, have wondered about what looks like a fenced off Megalithic burial chamber. Well that is exactly what it represents. It is made up of a collection of Cist stones, discussed in a paper of the Ulster Journal of Archaeology in 1861 which refers to an essay of 1828 by S.M. Stephenson of Greyabbey. The stones originated in a field near the Temple of the Winds and were part of an ancient cemetery. A large cairn, which stood in the way of 1786 drainage works, was removed and some of the rubble used in the project. In the process workmen found a number, probably sixty or seventy, of smaller examples, some with cremated fragments of bone and heart-shaped pottery vessels, a group of which is housed in the Ulster Museum. In 1935, the larger stones were moved to make way for a landing strip, and in 2008, through the generosity of the Lady Mairi Bury, they were moved to the present site. Their reconstruction gives a glimpse of how the original Cists must have looked.

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Other interesting stones turn up in the lake area. You may or may not have noticed that we have two stones from the Giant’s Causeway in the gardens, reputedly brought here by the 1st Marchioness and condemned by Edith, Lady Londonderry as ‘a most reprehensible habit’ and so it is, but perhaps in 1800 conservation hadn’t quite caught on. By coincidence I was visiting Dunmore House in Donegal last weekend and spied there a few of what looked suspiciously like Causeway stones in its garden, so maybe it was fashionable to have some as stepping stones or little seats or just a ‘feature’ in days of yore. What souvenirs do you have in your garden? – I must admit to having some petrified wood from the Sahara in mine.

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A natural rock feature is also to be found at the other end of the lake, almost hidden by the profuse and colourful Beschorneria yuccoides. You might pass it by when following your garden map and wonder where the Rock Walk is supposed to be. This outcrop marks the boundary of Strangford Lough about 8,000 years ago when sea levels were much higher, so if you dug down below the path you might find the remains of an ancient cobbled beach. Above is a grassy terrace with a panoramic view of the lake, just perfect for photographs.

Ellen

Plumbing with Dahlias?

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I’ve never been able to grown Dahlias successfully, don’t know why. They take a look at my garden and decide not to thrive, something I have in common with Kew Gardens when presented with seed by the chatelaine of that other Mount Stuart, the Marchioness of Bute. These South American plants come in a variety of extraordinarily vivid colours (except true blue and black) and have an interesting history in Mexico where they have been nominated as the National Flower. The Spanish physician Hernandez described them being used by the Aztecs to treat epilepsy, and we read that the stems of the huge Dahlia imperialis were used as water pipes. The local name variously translated as water cane, water pipe flower or hollow stem flower. Named after the Swedish botanist Anders Dahl, the tubers are still cultivated as a food source, tasting somewhat like potato.

The awful weather has devastated our crop of Dahlias in the Italian Garden at the moment, but don’t despair, they are quite resilient and will come back soon. As there are very few to take photos of, it is just as well I was a Blue Peter fan in my young day. Here are some I prepared earlier.

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Dahlias became very popular with lots of varieties being grown and there are now some 30 species and over 20,000 cultivars. No cottage garden is complete without them. Marie Antoinette was a fan, as was Claude Monet. Dahlia Societies were started, Dahlia Balls were held, and Bedrich Smetana, the Czech composer, wrote the Dahlia Polka. In the mid 1800s a London newspaper offered a prize of £1 to the first person to produce a blue petalled flower. The reward has yet to be claimed.

Ellen

The Insect Effect

Today I met a ladybird called Keith. She was tiny, smaller than a grain of Basmati rice, too miniscule for my point and shoot camera. With lovely colouring of yellow and black, a visiting gentleman’s hand had provided a landing strip for her and he presented her to me for identification. We discussed whether he had discovered a new species, in addition to the 5,000 already identified worldwide, and what it should be called. So in the tradition of naming plants and creatures after their discoverer, we called her Coccinellidae Keith. Ladybirds eat other insects but she was so small she was in danger of being eaten herself. I think she was too minute to be the invasive Harlequin Ladybird which is also yellow and black and poses a danger to our native species. Will check and report if necessary.

We then had a discussion on how useful a bug’s life is; some only live for a day, others only a season, and all are in danger of being eaten by the next size up. They each have a job to do in the bigger scheme of things, even if they are considered pests in the garden. I was asked by a visitor what use are snails and had to go and do some research. To my astonishment I discovered that besides providing birds with food, snail slime is used in cosmetics – however was that discovered? And are we worthy of it? I went home and looked again at the ingredients of my moisturiser. Snail mucus was also used medicinally from Ancient Greek times to the Middle Ages to relieve gastrointestinal ulcers, and to sooth sore throats. Mmmmm, think I’ll stick to honey and lemon.

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Unlike at home where my hostas are like Mr Doiley’s paper napkins, slugs and snails at Mount Stewart seem to leave them alone, can’t see a single hole in this lovely bunch. Snails in turn are eaten by birds and are considered a delicacy by ducks and frogs.

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The Kiosk family of housemartins await their escargot take-away.

And finally, the insect we love to swat – the wasp. This is a mistake because not only does it make a mess of your Woman’s Weekly but the dead body releases a chemical that signals other wasps to come to the rescue, so you end up with one dead and ten paramedics. It makes more sense just to share the jam in your Victoria sponge and let the flying scavenger move on to the next table. In the gardens at the moment we have two types of wasps, Vespula vulgaris, the homegrown or common one, and a visiting one Vespula germanica. They eat smaller insects like ants, aphids and caterpillars and flies, and also do some pollinating, therefore, apart from annoying picnickers, they are valuable members of the eco system. The two types are almost indistinguishable apart from the fact that vulgaris nests high up in roof spaces or holes in walls, and germanica likes to be at ground level. The common wasp depends for food on prey which disappears in winter, but germanica prefers species which are not affected by the cold and so their nests survive the winter and are also slightly bigger.

Ellen

VIP Plants Tree

Inside a cupboard in the Entrance Hall of the house used to be kept a set of croquet balls and mallets, and outside is the croquet lawn. Garden Croquet was a popular game for weekend visitors staying at big houses like Mount Stewart in the 1920s and 1930s (nowadays P Diddy is a fan as is John Prescott.) A sort of awkward sort of way to hit a ball and during the occasional game organised during event days, I usually ended up with bruised shins and a very low score – no wonder one team gets the black and blue balls. In Alice in Wonderland they used flamingo mallets and hedgehog balls, but I think I’ll stick to the putting green at Donaghadee where my score is not much better but at least my ankles remain intact.

In addition, country house weekends at Mount Stewart offered tennis courts, and a golf course near the Temple, as well as fishing brown trout in the lake, sailing, riding, or swimming in the pool across the road. You might even get taken up for a spin by the 7th Marquess in an aeroplane to admire the garden layout from the air. Wet days could be spent doing jigsaws, playing cards, reading in the Study, being entertained by one of Lady Mairi’s plays, or a singsong with composer Duncan Morrison playing the Bechstein. But if you were caught doing nothing, whether prime minister, prince, or famous author, you could find yourself sawing logs or trundling a wheelbarrow for a dungareed Lady Edith.

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Amongst the many famous people who came to stay probably the most prestigious were King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra who visited in July 1903. Their daughter Princess Victoria wrote candidly in the visitors’ book, ‘…beautiful place, but very damp….’ so presumably she got stuck into the jigsaws. There is no record of them playing any sports, but I suppose you could say they did a bit of gardening as the Royal Couple planted the two beautiful purple beeches, Fagus sylvatica f. purpurea, chosen for the occasion by Theresa, wife of the 6th Marquess. Both are in full colourful leaf just now on either side of the drive, the larger King’s tree bordering the croquet lawn.

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You can see the commemorative plaque with the date underneath, set in between the huge roots. In Celtic mythology Fagus was the God of beech trees. In days gone by, beech leaves were used to relieve swellings if you boiled them to make a poultice. And appropriately as this tree is beside the croquet lawn, the hardness of its wood makes it highly suitable for making wooden mallets! Bet the flamingos are relieved.

Ellen

Pretty in Pink

When I wrote the Tuesday Bluesday blog a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t realise that it should have been about pink blooms. Apparently, in Thai and Khmer traditions, days of the week have lucky and unlucky colours, so if you were born on a Saturday, like me, your lucky colour is purple, and in Thailand you may see people wearing a purple tie or scarf in honour of that day (sorry to say I am now old enough to wear purple.) Anyway, the colour for Tuesday (Lady Edith’s birth day) is pink and that has decided me on today’s photos.

Our Calico Bushes, Kalmia latifolia, come in two shades, pink and pinker. They are related to the Rhododendron and from a distance you might mistake them for such, but up close you can see the crimped shape of the buds and close cluster of the smaller flowers. There are several bushes in bloom just now on the west side of the lake.

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This tiny Fuchsia megellanica alba, found on the way to reception, is a delicate pink, a change from the more usual red ones, don’t they look like ballerinas? Fuchsias, from Argentina and Chile, are quite hardy and unlike some of our more exotic species will grow almost anywhere in Northern Ireland. Have you seen the fuchsia hedges lining the roads along the Antrim coast? Discovered in Hispaniola in the 17th century and named after the German botanist Leonhart Fuchs.

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Couldn’t do a pink theme without one of our glorious pink roses. This one, Silver Jubilee, has huge blooms and is at the bottom of the steps from the terrace down to the Italian Garden. The fragrance is soft and sweet, just like baby powder.

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And finally, the water lilies by the jetty have popped out, some a beautiful shade of pink with their green leaves making a perfect foil for the petals. An interesting fact is that the ribbed structure of giant water lily leaves, growing up to 3 metres in diameter, was the inspiration for Sir Joseph Paxton’s plans for the Crystal Palace. He stood his 9 year-old daughter, Annie, on a floating leaf of the Victoria amazonica to demonstrate its strength and went on to replicate the design in iron and glass for the Great Exhibition venue in 1851. While we don’t recommend putting children on any of our leaves, we are happy to see the occasional frog having a sunbathe, or in the case of this week, a shower.

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Ellen

The Friday Gang (three quarters of)

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If you want to see people who are happy in their work, visit the Spanish Garden on a Friday morning. Here you will find The Friday Gang, ie Joe, Wendy, and Heather here in the photo, minus Joan who is extra smiley at the moment as she is on her hols. The system of giving groups of volunteers specific responsibility for a certain area of the garden means that they can keep an eye on the development of the plants under their care, they feel a sense of ownership, and they get to know the conditions really well. You can see Joe is really keen as he insisted on holding onto his bucket. Favourite shrubs are the wisteria, the Grevillea, and the daisy-like Feverfew.

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The Friday Gang have another reason to smile – on a rainy day they have the Pavilion to run to and shelter in, even though they are sharing it at the moment with mummy and daddy house martins who have built their nest under the eaves.

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Other new critters to arrive are the Golden Orfes, goldfish to you and me, difficult to photograph under water without a special filter and living up to their name as no sooner did I aim the camera than they scooted orfe to hide under another lily pad! Perhaps they thought I was Henry the Heron coming to look for his lunch.

Ellen

In Excelsa Deo

Stop Press! You simply must not miss the display of our New Zealand Christmas Trees, Metrosideros excelsa, two of which are in full bloom at Tir N’an Og. A eye-popping Santa-worthy crimson blossom takes your breath away, especially when you are reminded by fellow garden team member, Louise that the advent of the bloom means it is only 23 shopping weeks to Christmas!

Metrosideros excelsa

Sometimes referred to as the Antipodean Holly, branches are used for seasonal decoration in New Zealand. For the Maori people, a gnarled twisted pohutukawa on a cliff top at the northernmost point of New Zealand is the place where the spirits of the dead begin their journey to the traditional homeland of Hawaiki. The spirits leap from the headland and climb down the trunk of the 800 year old tree, descending into a cave which takes them to the underworld on their return journey. Sort of chimes with Lady Edith’s Celtic mythology ideas, and our trees fittingly sit atop the hill of Tir N’an Og. Must look and see if there is a hidden cave at the roots……..

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Talking of roots, the trees have interesting aerial or, adventitious roots, dangling from the branches like birds’ nests. In botany ‘adventitious’ refers to structures that develop in unusual places, and so I learn yet another new word……perhaps Santa could leave a gardening dictionary in my stocking this year?

Ellen