SPICE IT UP for Christmas; gardening.
Yesterday morning, my young daughter, Eppie, toddled down the Garden. path (through brutal weather), delirious with excitement on her way to school because it was time for the nativity play.
She had what she reckoned was a scene-stealing role as one of the kings presenting frankincense. "But what is it, Dad?" she asked. "What did they give the baby Jesus in the manger as a gift?"
The past month has seen Eppie and her friends dressing up in luxurious robes (all bits of velvet), acting out this visit to the new-born Jesus in preparation for the day when all the parents will appreciate their efforts. It's led to a good deal of discussion.
The gold everybody understands - it's bright and shiny and is perhaps even more valuable nowadays as paper and plastic money seem so dubious - but frankincense and myrrh, two presents deemed by kings 2,000 years ago to be worthy gifts for the Son of God, means their importance was also highly valued. We hear of them every year at this time but most of us know so little about them.
They are not, in fact, precious minerals or jewels - they come from plants.
Frankincense is derived from the milky white aromatic resin of the Boswellia tree, found in east Africa and the Arabian peninsula . To harvest it, the trunk is slit and the sap seeps out, in much the same way as rubber was collected from plantations. It has been used through the millennia for religious ceremonies and medicinal purposes - even today it is being researched for its curative powers for asthma and arthritis.
But when it was proffered as a gift to the newborn baby it was used to symbolize his priestly role. When burned as incense, the smoke was believed to send prayers heavenwards. Even thinking about it helps us set the scene for contemplation over this Christmas period.
Myrrh is also a resin, derived this time from the Commiphora tree, which is also found in the Arabian peninsula and north east Africa.
These extracts were valued long before synthetic production of chemicals and potions. Markets and trade routes would have been packed with many different types of wondrous plant extracts.
Myrrh was an ingredient of anointing oil, symbolising Jesus as a healer. So, in the nativity, our three little actors will be offering up symbols of wealth, prayer and healing.
But back to those eastern markets. Through the years, the evocative smells have arrived in our own homes through cooking and these scents, which all derive from plants, will in the next week waft around the house.
Cinnamon is the essential Christmas smell. It comes from the bark of the Cinnamomum tree, which are coppiced, much like we do with willow, so shoots spring up. These shoots are hammered and the inner bark unfurled - that's what arrives in jars as a cinnamon stick.
Did you know that cloves are the dried flower buds of a tree - Syzygium aromaticum? The English name for them derives from the Latin word clavus, which means nail because that is what they look like. The clove was once one of the world's most sought-after commodities and was the main reason that the Dutch colonized Indonesia.
Most of us realise that ginger is a root - it comes from the plant Zingiber officinale and in the sub tropics it makes for a really beautiful ornamental plant. Star anise, too, a popular sweet spice in Chinese cooking, is essential for all those Christmas cocktails. Harvested just before they are ripe from the evergreen tree Illicium verum, the pretty star-shaped fruits are used to flavour sambuca, pastis and Galliano.
And, finally, where would we be without nutmeg? Used in powdered form to dust frothy milk drinks in coffee bars throughout the land, it is native to several Indonesian islands known as the Spice Islands. Nutmeg is the seed of the tree Myristica fragrans, a tree notable for producing more than one spice - the covering of the seed is also harvested for mace.
So, as we clasp our hands around warming mulled wine, or sit down for the festive lunch, let's remember most of those seasonal smells come from someone's garden somewhere.
Gold, Frankincense and More: Page 39
DEAR DIARMUID Could you please tell me the cause of the enclosed leaves disease? My pear trees are three years old and have not fruited yet, although they had plenty of blossom. I should be most grateful if you would advise what, if anything, can be done.
DOROTHY KOSNIOWSKI WARWICKSHIRE
HI DOROTHY, The leaves you sent me looked brown and dead. This could be pear leaf blister mite.
Watch the leaves in spring and if they develop yellow or pink blisters initially, these will in turn go brown. There's no chemical cure for this but it shouldn't affect fruit production.
It could also be pear slugworm - a little yellow caterpillar creature that is eating your leaves - again inspect your leaves in spring and see if you spot these small predators. If so, spray with an insecticide. In relation to the lack of fruits, pollination was extremely poor this year for most fruit trees due to the weather.
Also, you need different pear varieties, either in your garden or a neighbour's, to cross-pollinate for the best fruit production.
BEST WISHES DIARMUID
Cinnamon is the essential smell at this time of yeart - the
NUTMEG: An edible seed
GINGER: a root from the zingiber plant
SPICE CURLS: Rolls of cinnamon bark with dried anise
Christmas TREE: A cinnamon bush
AROMATIC: Spices are essential for Christmas fare