With the huge shift in temperature this week, spring is suddenly here and several bird species are now singing in the garden: blue tit (blåmeis), great tit (kjøttmeis), greenfinch (grønnfink) and, down in the bay about 20 goldeneyes (kvinand) have been displaying. Yesterday, for the first time, I heard singing woodpigeon, bullfinch and this great spotted woodpecker (flaggspett) drumming on the metal cap of the electricity pole:
..and this nuthatch (spettmeis) was inpecting what I have in offer for nesting sites. The oldest painted bird boxes predate my time here and were put up for starlings (stær) originally.
Norwegian: for en norsk oversettelse av denne artikkelen (Norwegian translation), se KVANNs (Norwegian Seed Savers) Nyhetsbrev #15
There’s always been a barberry (Berberis vulgaris) in my garden, in dry soil in the root zone of my largest spruce trees. It was a large plant when we moved here in 1984 and may be wild as it’s a common plant on the other side of the bay (Malvikbukta) where it grows on shallow dry soils next to the fjord in company with sea buckthorn (Hippophae tamnoides). It is thought that this species was originally introduced in monastery gardens and later naturalised. It’s nowadays a relatively common but local plant along the Trondheimsfjord, but isn’t found much further north.
I also planted one next to the kitchen window in order to get good views of waxwings (sidensvans) and thrushes (troster) that feast on the berries in autumn and winter:
I also have a form with dark berries which I propagated by seed which I received in 1998:
Ethnobotany There are many species of Berberis, and the closely related Mahonia, which many botanists consider to be a part of Berberis, that have been used traditionally for food around the world. In South America, several species were used including the fruit of the michay (Berberis microphylla) used by the Mapuche people of Chile and Argentina. Numerous Native American tribes used various Mahonia species both fresh and dried, for jelly and jam, tea, wine and lemonade. In Japan, several species are used for drinks and at least one species is used for a drink in China. 7 species are known to be used in Nepal, both eaten fresh, pickled, distilled into alcohol and in the case of Berberis chitria, the seeds are roasted. Fruit of Mahonia acanthifolia and Mahonia napaulensis are also eaten fresh and pickled. Another Himalayan barberry (Berberis asiatica) is said to make the best Indian raisins. However, it is in Iran (and neighbouring Afghanistan) that barberries are really an important part of the national cuisine(s), notably zereshk polow (literally barberry rice). The eastern Iranian province of South Khorasan is the main production area of seedless Iranian barberries on (in 2014) 11,000 ha and over 9,000 tonnes of dried fruit. Cultivation goes back 200 years or so. Most authors consider that the seedless barberry, which is propagated by suckers, is Berberis vulgaris var. asperma but others that it is a form, or hybrid, Berberis integerrima ‘Bidaneh’ (bidaneh meaning seedless). Difficulty of propagation, the spiny nature of plants and the tendency to yield every other year are problems being addressed. I like to let the birds, and in particular waxwings, take most of the barberries. However, I normally dry a few for my dried fruit mixes which I have for breakfast once the fresh apples are finished normally from April to when the first fresh fruit is available again in July (see https://www.edimentals.com/blog/?p=25352). However, this year there were very few waxwings and I dried many more than normal (over the wood stove).
I’ve been inspired by Persian cuisine many times over the years, like the Persian spice golpar from the seeds of Heracleum persicum and other Heracleum species, now the spice I use more than any other (see https://www.edimentals.com/blog/?s=golpar) and Persian shallots (see https://www.edimentals.com/blog/?s=persian+shallots). I therefore decided to try using my dried Berberis harvest in various Iranian dishes. The first was just to give a “lemony zing” to rice. I ground the dried berries and just sprinkled on the rice before serving.
There are numerous recipes for preparing zereshk polow which you can find easily by searching on the net (including youtube videos). It’s either a layered rice dish, but the rehydrated berries are usually sprinkled on the top as a jewel-like decoration. The berries are either rehydrated by soaking in cold water for 5-10 minutes or quickly in hot water. They are also added to melted butter which plumps them up. Saffron is often an ingredient (South Khorasan is also an important production area for saffron). The Iranian spice mix, which often contains golpar (ground seeds or the flower petals of Heracleum persicum). The pilow is usually steamed and often onions, garlic and almond slices are included. I’d like to adapting this using barley or rye grains in place of the rice.
Other Ethnobotanical Uses I’ve also recorded other uses of Berberis vulgaris in the ethnobotanical literature in Europe and West Asia: Czech Republic: Snack food for children Estonia: Spice for fermented cucumbers Slovakia: Young shoots eaten raw in spring or added to sauces Bulgaria: Fruit added to soups as a sour taste Turkey: Used fresh or dried Basque Country (Spain): Young shoots are eaten
Other species In 2011 on a visit to the Dublin botanical garden, I tasted my way through a nice collection of Berberis in fruit and two of them stood out with good taste:
Nutritionally, Berberis fruits are rich in vitamin C (similar to citrus). In some areas, it may be unadvisable to plant Berberis vulgaris as it is an alternative host for the stem rust Puccinia graminis of wheat and barley. However, modern day varieties are usually resistent.
Since New Year, only one day had been slightly above zero with temperatures regularly below -15C, but then a big shift in the weather happened a few days ago and it’s now 25C warmer than it was a week ago! It’s interesting to see how hardy some Alliums are, even when not insulated by snow and here are 3 of the most hardy: Allium carinatum (keeled garlic / rosenløk), Allium flavum (small yellow onion / doggløk) and Allium cernuum (nodding onion /prærieløk) can all be harvested even though the soil is frozen solid. Hablitzia tamnoides (Caucasian spinach / stjernemelde) shoots are also developing nicely and I’ll have a few for lunch today along with the onions.
This is a long post to document the importance of Norway spruce, gran in norwegian (Picea abies) in my garden. All pictures shown are taken in the garden. Milder weather has arrived with strong southerly winds and the garden around the twin spruce trees was covered in fallen spruce needles (video below), something which is only obvious when there’s snow on the ground. Norway spruce (Picea abies) needles live for only a few years before being shed.
Pairs of spruce trees had been planted by the previous owners in the 1940s-1950s in four different parts of the garden and about 5 others have appeared, presumably self-sown from the original plantings, although gran (Norwegian name) is a common forest tree in this area and an important economic species. Only one of the original pairs still exist as I felled them to make room for a diversity of fruit and berries and because of an area of the garden had been attacked by an aggresive form of honey fungus (honningsopp) (see below). Despite finding honey fungus on the roots of the oldest two trees maybe twenty years ago they still seem to be in good health. On my exposed hilltop they’ve survived extreme winds, particularly Storm Dagmar at Xmas 2011 which felled large numbers of trees also in this area. The film below was put together from a series of still pictures some hours after the storm peak that destroyed my greenhouse; see https://www.edimentals.com/blog/?p=18189
This Google Street view picture from before Dagmar in 2010 shows the intact greenhouse and the pair of remaining oldest spruce trees and a couple of younger self-sown trees to the right (the yellow shed is in the neighbour’s garden).
There used to be two spruce trees to the south east of and quite close to the house but they were felled when I was terracing below the house in the 90s. We found that the trees were growing on an old rubbish tip with a lot of organic material as nettles grew prolifically here. …and one of original two on the western boundary next to the outhouse: Large numbers of wood mushroom / snøballsjampinjong (Agaricus sylvicola) and a few blushing wood mushroom / blodsjampinjong (Agaricus sylvaticus) have grown under these spruce trees for many years. They are saprobic, living on decaying and dead spruce needles. The best trees were those by the outhouse (last picture above), but we had to take this one down as the neighbour was afraid it would fall over their house or the power cable. They also grew in large amounts around the remaining two spruce trees (pictures below) but I haven’t seen them for several years at the same time that hedge mustard / løkurt (Alliaria petiolata) invaded this area and I wonder if the allelopathic chemicals in this plant have impacted and killed the mushrooms. I have therefore been systematically removing the hedge mustard from the this area in the hope that the mushrooms will return. It’s amazing to think that those fallen spruce needles that we started with can transform into delicious food for us!
Another edible fungi associated with spruce once appeared in the garden; Lactarius deterrimus (false saffron milkcap / granmatriske):
The Ethnobotany of Spruce There are numerous food uses of Norway spruce to be found in the ethnobotanical literature. The inner bark has been used to make bark bread in the past in bad years; the immature cones have been cooked, the seed have been eaten by children raw, the young shoots have been used to make tea and beer (and in modern times to make a sweetened drink), the needles have been used in the French/ Swiss cheeses Vacherin d’Abondance/ Vacherin Mont d’Or and the resin or gum (kvae) has been used as a chewing gum:
Other uses I’ve used the wood of the felled trees of course to heat the house and the ash has been used for various purposes. A stump has also served as a chopping block for many years. I’ve also used branches to insulate and stop leaves from blowing away from areas of the garden like my sea kale bed that need winter protection:
The importance of spruce for birds in my garden The two oldest spruce trees are also extremely important for many bird species both as an excellent song post, the top being the highest point in the garden, and a place with a good view of approaching predators. Both chffinches (bokfink), robin (rødstrupe), blackbird (svarttrost), dunnock (jernspurv), nuthatch (spettmeis), greenfinches (grønnfink), brambling (bjørkefink), redwings (rødvingetrost), chiffchaff (gransanger; the Norwegian name meaning “spruce singer”), various tits, notably coal tit (granmeis; again litereally meaning “spruce tit”) and others sing from these trees. Here’s one video of a brambling singing and various links below to other posts I’ve made over the years of birds on these trees..
Treecreeper and goldcrests are sometimes seen foraging in the spruce trees in winter, hosting favourite hiding places for numerous insects. Here’s a recent blog post of a winter goldcrest: https://www.edimentals.com/blog/?p=27332 Some birds cache nuts and seeds for winter in trees like spruce and others may accidentally discover this and raid the caches. On warm winter days, waxwings (sidensvans) can often be seen hawking after insects from the tree tops. Various species also nest in my spruces, most obviously magpies (skjære) and hooded crows (kråke).
A blackbird (svarttrost) above showing off its improvisational and mimicking skills atop a spruce tree this morning! It’s been a bit too cold for much song activity over the last couple of weeks, but it’s slightly warmer today with a maximum of 7C this first day of May.
Below is a video of a redwing (rødvingetrost) in full song at 1 am on 7th June just 2 weeks away from the longest day!
The first dunnock of 2021 atop one of the spruce trees in song this morning (17th April):
Flowers, cones, seeds to fungi An album of pictures showing the whole life cycle of flowers to pollen to cones to seed and the afterlife of cones and fallen needles colonised by fungi that give us and other creatures food:
Stumps Stumps of spruce trees left to rot are also fascinating to follow through the years as they break down slowly helped along the way by fungi and colonised by mosses:
Hepatica I’m also fortunate having a wild population of Hepatica nobilis (blåveis) and they often grow in dry soil below younger spruce trees:
In a sunnier spot, Hepatica can flower profusely in early spring
Storage Under the spruce trees is also a good spot to store pea and bean stakes as it’s dry.
Growing out of nothing It’s always amazing to see how such large trees grow on hardly any soil and I’ve noticed how, when removing stumps, how the tree itself has broken up the rock to create deeper soil over time. At the bottom of the garden, the lower two trees grow on even shallower soil and here you see large roots clambering over rocks in search of deeper soil:
Assorted celestial and other spruce pictures through the years A final set of pictures featuring my wonderful spruce trees over the years in various poses with the moon, the sun and a rainbow.
As I’ve written before on this blog, nettles (Urtica spp.) are important food plants for birds, both due to insects and their larvae feeding on them in summer and the nutrient rich seed in winter. Today there was a small flock of redpolls (gråsisik) feeding on the seed on a small patch of stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) that I’ve been encouraging just below the house and in good view of the living room.
There was a pair of marsh tit (løvmeis) in the garden one day this week and they showed some interest in a nest box. Hoping for first time nesting in the garden of this species! In the video, it can be seen interested in an unopened hazel catkin, which are eaten by other tits.
I heard a magpie “singing” this morning outside the front door. It has been desribed as a low-pitched, slightly chirping giggle and is in my experience most often heard on cold winter days. Indeed song has been recorded in January in Finnmark (the northernmost county of Norway) in an air temperature of -36C! Unfortunately, the magpie discovered me as soon as I started filming and there’s only a very short snatch at the beginning.
People are always asking me for recipes. I rarely follow recipes as my ingredients vary so much and I just use what I have available. However, I do follow a number of basic, mostly lacto-vegetarian recipes which I’ve evolved to my liking over the years. For instance, last night I used a) Pea shoots (erteskudd), harvested about 25cm high (before they get too coarse to use; I don’t cut them right down to the soil as they will then resprout once or twice before giving up; to do this, they must be grown in a bucket or similar in deep soil); the peas were a mixture of about twenty home grown varieties, including several heirlooms such as Norwegian Jærert and Ringeriksert). b) Swiss chard / mangold (it’s been too cold for this to regrow in the cellar where it’s planted in soil) c) Chicory “Catalogna gigante di Chioggia” (sikkori) (this had resprouted in the cellar from the roots) d) Leeks / purre (also stored in soil in the cellar) e) Yacon (sliced tubers) f) Scorzonera / scorsonnerot (sliced tubers) g) Oca (oka) (Oxalis tuberosa) h) Garlic / hvitløk i) Chili / chili j) Bulb onions / kepaløk k) golpar (ground seed of various Heracleum species; bjørnekjeks / Tromsøpalme) The roots are stir-fried first (in olive oil), then the onions are added and at the end the greens for 5-10 minutes, finally mixing in chili, salt and pepper. Served either over whole grain spelt pasta or mixed as a risotto (I use barley normally for a barlotto) with strong cheese or parmesan.
The roots are stir-fried first (in olive oil), then the onions are added and at the end the greens for 5-10 minutes, finally mixing in chili, salt and pepper. Served either over whole grain spelt pasta or mixed as a risotto with strong cheese or parmesan.
The yellowhammer (gulspurv) has been showing a worrying decline in Europe (some 40%) and almost 20% in 10 years here in Norway where it is a breeding bird over most of the country where there is agriculture. Doing my little bit by putting out grain (barley / bygg) to help them. A flock of up to 20 birds have been visiting for the last few weeks. Nice to see them now in full sunshine.