I’ve got Ikigai

When you volunteer it goes without saying that you have to find pleasure in what you are doing and that for me is a given in the gardens of Mount Stewart.  And the Japanese concept of ikigai means that the job you do has a beneficial effect on others.    Here at Mount Stewart one of the most rewarding things about being a garden steward is being able to bring a smile to our visitors’ faces.  Directing them to today’s exciting new flower, letting them know our exciting future plans, showing them the little secret places that only we who work here know about and explaining why we have orang-utans wearing flowerpot hats.

Anyway, this being the “washup” blog of the year I thought I would pass on a few things that have brought me, and hopefully our visitors, pleasure in 2017.  Highlights came thick and fast in a busy season for the property.   Although Head Gardener Neil proclaimed a 37” rainfall as a wet year, my days on duty seem to have escaped the worst of the weather, I can only remember sunny days. And although  Hurricane Ophelia felled a lot of our trees, Neil, always willing to fill a space has already plans for planting lots of new stuff, so we have a silver lining to that very destructive stormcloud.  Thankfully, apart from a few branches, the eucalyptus trees survived – phew!


Volunteers and staff provided the audience for Gardeners’ Corner on local BBC radio, when presenter Helen Mark brought the programme to the Temple on a beautifully sunny September morning.  Neil, a regular contributor to the panel, was joined by Sarah Cook, former head gardener at Sissinghurst.


A second brood of swifts were raised in the courtyard nest.  Four noisy little ones were admired by many visitors as the chicks peeked out of the nest and were fed every few minutes by their hard working parents.


Something else I take particular pleasure in is learning about our exotic plants and researching the intrepid plant hunters who brought them back to the UK.  Lady Edith was instrumental in funding several of these expeditions that involved many trials and tribulations for the (mostly) men travelling in foreign parts.

Surviving earthquakes, fighting disease and thwarting rivals, they had to be a combination of botanist, mountaineer and Indiana Jones, in order to bring back wonderful and rare plants, many of which are now on the Red List in their native countries.

This impressive rambling Salvia Dombeyi, named for Joseph Dombey who travelled in Chile and Peru, is a tender perennial found at around 3000 metres in Peru.  Its flowers are among the largest salvia flowers at nearly 8 cm long.  Red blossoms were used as part of religious ceremonies by the Incas who believed that mysterious mountain gods were the cause of volcanic eruptions.


Our resident swans reared three out of their four cygnets this year.  Always graceful and elegant, they add a really picturesque note to our beautiful lake.


A very exciting highlight this summer was the creamy white flowering of our Emmenopterys Henryi  tree hidden away in the far reaches of the estate.  Found in the temperate parts of China and Vietnam, it is deciduous, can attain heights of 45 metres and grow to be 1000 years old.

Named after the Irish botanist Augustine Henry from Cookstown, it is noted for its very rare flowering.  Introduced to the UK in 1907, the first flowering in Europe was in 1971 and from what I read ours is only the 6th flowering in the UK since then, the last one in Cambridge in 2012.


A quirky plant which the visitors really enjoyed this year and which flowered all summer was our giant rhubarb.

The cherry red blossoms dominated the shamrock garden and drew many admiring comments.7

There’s still plenty to see in the gardens even though we have had snowfall and Francesca’s board will give you interesting information about what’s in bloom.


I’ll sign off now with a big thank you to the gardening team for all their hard work in making my, Trevor and Pat’s jobs so pleasant.


With very best wishes for a Happy Christmas and a Good New Year to all.





One of the most enjoyable things about writing the garden blog is that I keep discovering wonderful stories about not only a plant but the plant hunter or person for whom it is named.  Take Sparrmannica africana, the large green soft leaved plant that is flowering at the moment in the Italian Garden.  Otherwise known as African Hemp, it is evergreen with white flowers. My reading led to the discovery of a new word (pay attention Quizzers), haptonasty, that means rapid movements made by the stamens when they are touched, thus helping more effective pollination.   Sometimes kept as a house plant, beware as Sparrmannia can grow  20 metres high with a spread of 15 metres, so you would need a big pot.


After identification for me by Dr Francesca Di Palo, I started to research the plant’s history and came across an unsung hero of the 18th century, Dr Anders Sparrman, a Swede who accompanied Captain Cook (wearing  shiny shoes even in a storm) in HMS Resolution on several voyages.


The youngest son of a rector, Anders from an early age had been encouraged to respect nature and take an interest in farming on which the family depended to supplement his father’s meagre stipend.  Starting medical studies at the age of 14, and becoming a pupil of Carl Linnaeus, he went on to become the first zoologist to study the African rhino.   Sailing as a ship’s doctor to China he returned with botanical specimens and then accompanied Captain Cook to the Antarctic Circle and South Africa, along the way noting the insects that invaded the ship’s biscuits and dining on dog and chicken stew, penguins, and fried elephant trunks, yum.  Sparrmann’s journal quoted in author Dr Per Wastberg’s biography is a fascinating account of the travels of a natural scientist who advocated the end of slavery and practised as a medical doctor to the poor, but remained relatively obscure.   He already has an asteroid, 16646 Sparrman, bearing his name, but I think he deserved a plant as well, don’t you agree?

And isn’t our garden the most fascinating source of interesting facts?



It was a great pleasure this week to see our three cygnets on the lake at Mount Stewart preening furiously and then taking a flying lesson with Mum.  There was a great deal of flapping and splashing before they took off and flew the length of the lake before landing somewhat inelegantly with more splashing.  They will be chased off any day now by the parents and will have to find their own patch of water before maturing and mating around the age of four years.  While waiting for that they will probably join the other “juniors”, in the little bay near the Gasworks.



The lake is looking quite colourful at the moment with more trees waiting to “turn” for the autumn.  Lots of visitors were out taking a constitutional and making most of leaf peeping opportunities, cameras to the fore.






Travelling recently in Wyoming I discovered that the Shoshone people have an interesting calendar where they have a nature-related name for each of our twelve months.  So September is known as Wild Cherries Open and describes the seasonal berries which are so beloved of bears as they go into hyperphagia or feeding frenzy mode in order to sustain them as they hibernate for the winter.  A Copper Baron’s home I planned to visit was closed because bears had invaded the orchard and eaten all the apples!

Here at Mount Stewart we might call this time of year Asters Blooming or Leaves Turning Orange or Rain Never Stopping, you get the picture.

Anyway, there is still plenty of colour in the gardens so here are some of our seasonal flowers to be found around the grounds.


Asters are such a delightful late summer flower and the beautiful lavender blue colour really stands out

in the flower beds of the Italian garden. They also provide a late feeding opportunity for butterflies and bees.

Today a symbol of patience and talisman of love, in ancient times it was thought that the perfume from their burning leaves could drive away evil serpents.


From the daisy family, this Berkheya Cirsiifolia is from South Africa but likes it here as well, note the lovely golden centre ringed with burgundy, but beware prickly leaves and stems.


You can see the autumn colour appearing on the Dodo Terrace with the leaves of the Devil’s Walking Stick turning red. More prickles to be aware of here.


Our dahlias never fail to give lots of colour and seem to recover quickly after heavy rain.  National flower of Mexico, a red dahlia given as a gift conveys power and strength to the recipient.


For Plants to Look Out For you can also consult Francesca’s blue board in the Courtyard, featured on this one is the lovely climbing plant Mutisia Oligodon from Chile and the little climbing bluebell from Australia Sollya Heterophylla.

See the board for where to look, and you don’t have to worry about bears.




Scents and Sensibilities


At a recent Summer School in Greenmount Agricultural College, one of the gardeners, Linda, reminded us of the way our senses can be stimulated by nature. I resolved to try and match our five senses to something at Mount Stewart and was amazed at how much I had to leave out.

I suppose the first sense visitors to the gardens are aware of is smell as they approach Reception. Having wondered at the curry scent of Escallonia resinosa as they come along the path, they are then overwhelmed by the wonderfully aromatic Mexican Orange Blossom.


Another fresh fruity smell can be experienced in the Italian Garden if you sniff the Moroccan Broom growing just below the terrace wall.  Its proper name is Argyrocytisus battandieri, named after French botanist Jules Time Battandier, and the beautiful yellow blooms smell of pineapple.


Hearing is taken care of by our eucalyptus tree leaves rattling in the wind, the crunch of their bells under your feet, the swish of bamboo, or the quacking of the ducks as they gather at your feet looking for a snack.


How about touch?   These beautiful bright lemon Achillea blossoms have leaves that are smooth and velvety between our fingers, just like the silk borders on our blankies that soothed us as children.  The complete opposite is the extremely coarse texture of our cork tree bark.


As far as taste goes, we have kiwi fruit and wonderful herbs, one of the most popular is lavender.


A delicious addition to our tearoom menu is the lavender muffin.  All our muffins are wonderful, but these new ones are yummy and HUGE. Baker Sharon infuses milk with Hidcote lavender blossoms which when added to her mixture gives these treats a very subtle flavour, and they are gluten free as well.


Lavender contains vitamin A, calcium and iron, so obviously these muffins need to be part of your diet.  And for an extra treat don’t forget our lavender and raspberry ice cream, an award winning concoction in partnership with Glastry Farms.

And of course sight of the vibrant colours chosen by Edith Lady Londonderry, never fails to delight the eye.  The summer gardens in full bloom are something to behold, and at all seasons there is always a new bloom to photograph.


A sixth sense, known as ESP, extra sensory perception, is a tingle that cannot be explained, an awareness of something that cannot be seen.

My ESP tells me that a visit to our beautiful gardens will fill up your senses and that you will have a wonderful time.




I was tidying up around the Japanese bridges today and thinking about a recent poetry lecture, wondering if a Japanese Limerick might be called a Kyoto? Limericks have 5 lines with their own rhyming rules, AABBA; could the Japanese Haiku be considered the equivalent?  A Haiku has three lines with 17 syllables allocated 5, 7, 5, and whereas a limerick is mostly comic, sometimes rude, a Haiku can be non-rhyming, and by tradition is a condensed and hopefully profound comment on nature.  Thought I would have a go.



Dandelion Clock

Puffing will tell you the time 

And distribute seeds



Water lilies glow

Pink blooms on waterproof rafts

Summertime is here



I’m hitchin’ a ride 

The view from here is just great

Eiderdown Heaven



Monarch of the Glen

Bearing souls to Paradise

Tir N’an Og attained



Lake water rippling

Autumn leaf-turn reflecting

Winter heralding



I did my best, but

Composing is not easy,

Until the next time,



This Saturday (17th) is the Comber Earlies Festival which started me thinking about our local spuds.   An Irish legend says that wrecks of the Spanish Armada contained potatoes and that some of them washed ashore.   Was this the beginning of the Irish love affair with patatas fritas, or was it in 1589 when Sir Walter Raleigh first planted the potato at his Irish estate near Cork?  The story goes that he made a gift of the plant to Queen Elizabeth I and the local gentry were invited to a royal banquet that featured the potato in every course.  Unfortunately the cooks hadn’t seen this strange foodstuff before and assumed you ate the poisonous stems and leaves. These promptly made everyone deathly ill, the strange new vegetable was banned from court, and Tayto nearly didn’t make it onto the carpet at Aldergrove.

Where are we going with this, I hear you ask?   Well, this is an excuse to show you a photograph of our potato plant,  Solanum Crispum, one of 1400 species of the Chilean Potato Tree.  It is a cousin of the kitchen potato as well as being related to the eggplant and tomato families.  The lovely purple flowers appear in summer followed by berries which taste so appalling that even the birds reject them.  Find it in the Peace Garden.


Never let it be said that I ignore trivia or fail to pass it on to my mates, so here are more quiz winning facts.  The earliest known recipe for potato chips is in William Kitchiner‘s 1822 cookbook The Cook’s Oracle, a bestseller in England and the United States; its recipe for “Potatoes fried in Slices or Shavings” reads “peel large potatoes, slice them about a quarter of an inch thick, or cut them in shavings round and round, as you would peel a lemon; dry them well in a clean cloth, and fry them in lard or dripping”.  

Also did you know that spuds were the first vegetable to be grown in space?   So that Martian Mash TV ad was true and you can find some of the Cadbury’s Smash puppets in the National Media Museum in Bradford. And, finally, based on 2010 statistics, China is the leading producer of potatoes.  They serve their fish and chips with sugar – a new version of sweet and sour perhaps?   Think I’ll stick to Champ – with scallions and country butter, it’s a mash made in Heaven.