Sunday, 10 June 2018

Home Grown Exotics

Grow exotic houseplants from fruit and vegetables bought from the greengrocer

There are many fruit and vegetables we can easily buy at the greengrocer’s or the fruit and veg section of the local supermarket, that can be grown as unusual and exotic houseplants.

Pineapple flower

Homegrown Pineapples

The pineapple (Ananas comosus) is one of the best tropical fruits to try growing at home and with a bit of care it will even produce fruit.

I speak from experience, because many years ago when I was still living in Cardiff, I made the HTV News at Christmas with my homegrown pineapple. I was filmed watering my pineapple plant and talking about how I had cultivated it. I said I used soil from the back garden and water from the tap, and that I repotted it when the plant got too big for the pot it was in, but that was all I did. An expert from the Welsh National Botanical Centre praised my achievement, and I was proclaimed as the first Welsh pineapple grower.

All you need to do to follow my example, is to twist the spiky rosette part off from the top of a pineapple, and then remove the leaves at the base to leave a stump. Leave this to dry for a few days before planting by pushing gently into a pot of damp compost. If you are in luck, there may already be tiny roots sprouting from this stump before you plant it.

Once well-rooted the pineapple will grow into a large rosette of spiky leaves and after a few years, all going well, it will produce a flowering stalk right in the centre. Mine took five years to flower but that was in a house with no central heating in Wales! The tiny flowers are a pretty lavender shade and surrounded by reddish spiky bracts.

After the pineapple has ripened and been removed side shoots will form on the main stem. These can be removed for further pineapple propagation or if left on the original plant long enough, they can flower and produce a second crop. I managed to grow another pineapple like this.

Taro or Inhame

The taro (Colocasia esculenta)  is a root vegetable that is sold as “inhame” in Portugal, and ñame” in Spain and the Canary Islands. The corms are cooked by baking, roasting or boiling, but what many people do not realise is that if planted these corms will produce a most attractive houseplant if given the chance. In fact, the taro is often grown as an ornamental plant known as “elephant’s ears.” It gets this name because it has large heart-shaped leaves.

Elephant's Ears

The taro likes a very damp compost and will grow submerged. You can often see these plants growing in fountains and water gardens. I have grown taro in a pot of compost I stood in a bucket of water.


Steve Andrews in the South Wales Echo

You can grow kiwifruit (Actinidia deliciosa) vines from seeds from kiwis you have bought. It takes a long time for the plants to grow big enough to produce flowers and fruit but it can be done. I managed this when I was living in Wales still and followed up my pineapple story in the local media with my success at harvesting kiwifruit in my back garden. I admit it took five years before I had any fruit on my vines but I felt a real sense of achievement when I had my first crop of seven kiwifruit and my picture in the South Wales Echo. If I can grow kiwis in Cardiff, think how much better they would do here in Iberia!


Avocado Tree

The avocado (Persea americana) is another fruit that can be easily grown. Just plant the large pits in a pot of compost and wait for them to sprout. Many people think you need special techniques for getting them to germinate but I have never found this to be the case. Simply burying a pit in a pot of damp soil has worked for me.  Your homegrown avocado will make an interesting houseplant when it is young and can be moved outside in Iberia when it gets bigger. Eventually it will form a large tree.



Another easy plant to grow is ginger (Zingiber officinale). This root vegetable is commonly used as a spice for curries and other hot dishes, and in herbal teas. Fresh ginger roots or rhizomes are easy to find in supermarkets. They will often start sprouting green shoots when in storage, almost as if they are inviting you to plant them!

All you need to do is to break off sections and plant them in a pot of compost. The shoots will take a few weeks to really sprout but will then keep growing into a plant with long narrow leaves. You can harvest your first crop of ginger later the same year, and fresh ginger you have grown yourself is so much fresher than the ginger you can buy.

There are many more fruits and vegetables that will grow from seeds, pips or roots of shop-bought produce.  Why not see what you can get to sprout? It can be a lot of fun finding out what can be grown and what the plants actually look like!

NB: The text for this article was originally published in Mediterranean Gardening & Outdoor Living Magazine, Issue 22, February 2016.

The Cacti of Iberia

Cacti of Spain and Portugal 

Prickly Pears (Opuntia dillenii)

You will see cacti growing in many parts of Iberia, mainly types of prickly pear cactus, and in some places, such as the Canary Islands, they are so common that it is easy to assume they are part of the native species. They look just right for the semi-desert landscapes. But in fact, there are no endemic cacti in Spain or Portugal, though some species from the Opuntia and Cylindropuntia genera have become widely naturalised. There are actually as many as 20 different types of Opuntia recorded as growing wild in Europe and the Mediterranean, but we are looking at the ones found in Iberia, and the ones you are most likely to see.

Prickly Pears

Harvested Prickly Pears

Cacti in the Opuntia genus are commonly and collectively known as prickly pears. The name refers to their edible fruit, which are found budding from the large and very prickly pads. These cacti have large numbers of tiny spines or glochids that project and will detach easily from the small bumps on the cactus skin that hold them, and which are technically known as aeroles.

There are two main species of prickly pear seen in Iberia: O. ficus-indica and O. dillenii. The first of these is known in English as the Indian fig Opuntia and the Barbary fig. The plant is referred to as “nopal” in Mexican Spanish, and its fruit is a “tuna.” The flowers are red, yellow or white, and the fruits are green, turning yellow or reddish as they ripen. It has been historically grown as a food crop for thousands of years in Mexico. You need to carefully remove the spines on the tunas by rubbing in an abrasive material and also peeling the fruit. They are usually eaten chilled and resemble watermelon in flavour. The fruit are also used to make jams and jellies, and have been used in the production of alcoholic drinks too. You will often see them for sale on fruit and vegetable counters.

The green pads, or nopales, can be eaten too. Again, you must carefully remove the spines, and the sliced pads can be fried or boiled.
Prickly Pear Flowers

The species O. dillenii is also known as O. stricta, and in English it is called the erect prickly pear. It has lemon-yellow flowers followed by purplish-red fruit with smooth skins, though, once again they are protected by spines. I used to eat a lot of these fresh when I lived in Tenerife, and used to manage to safely peel them using my thumb and finger-nails, but it is a tricky procedure so cannot be recommended. The tiny spines are notoriously difficult to get out of you and they hurt! This cactus is actually regarded as an invasive weed in many parts of the world where it has invaded the land. All species of prickly pear spread easily from pads which have broken off from the parent plant but which then root where they have fallen.

Cholla cacti

A very prickly Cholla

Speaking of cacti that spread easily from pieces that have become detached brings me to the cholla cacti in the Cylindropuntia genus. In Spain and Portugal there are two species that are commonly encountered: C. spinosior and C. imbricata. The first of these is known as the walkingstick cactus or the spiny cholla, and the latter species is called cane cholla or chain-link cactus. Both species are well-protected with large numbers of the most vicious spines imaginable all over the sections of the plants. The spines will easily break off, and the sections of cactus can also be readily detached. My advice is be very careful with these plants, because the spines are really painful. Fall accidentally into one of these and you will regret it!

The cholla cacti come from Mexico and the southern states of America but have spread to many parts of the world, where like the prickly pears, they have become invasive weeds.  Although these cacti can be problem plants, they also make formidable fences. Anyone caring to ignore them is asking for trouble!

Peruvian Apples

In addition to the cacti in the Opuntia and Cylindropuntia genera, you may see the Peruvian apple cactus (Cereus repandus/peruvianus) growing in gardens, and also on waste ground in Iberia. This cactus is very tall and produces columns that can easily reach as much as 10 metres in height. It comes from South America but stands up to cold periods in Spain and Portugal well. This cactus produces spectacular cream-coloured flowers that open at night and are only open for the one night. The flowers turn into edible fruit, known as Peruvian apples or pitaya.

Besides all these cacti that might be encountered in Iberia, many gardeners introduce other species into community-used ground near their homes, and cacti often root when they have been thrown out, so you can at times find all sorts of surprises but none are native plants. Gardeners in Portugal and Spain often grow many cacti outside that in the UK are strictly houseplants. The hot summers and mild winters give us an advantage when it comes to cactus growing.

NB: This article was intended as my last contribution to Mediterranean Gardening & Outdoor Living Magazine but due to the co-editor's health, the publication has very sadly had to close down earlier than was hoped and has failed to find anyone to take over running it.

Saturday, 26 May 2018

The Endangered Trees of Sheffield and Other UK Cities

Save Sheffield's Trees

The endangered trees of Sheffield are a big concern for me, and a growing number of people from all walks of life. Not just local residents, but celebrities, such as Bianca Jagger and Jarvis Cocker, have joined the campaign to save the trees. Even Michael Gove, who is  Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, spoke out and accused Sheffield City Council of committing “environmental vandalism.”

What is happening in Sheffield, where thousands of trees have been felled, is bad enough but it is happening in many other UK cities too. Cardiff, Swansea, Liverpool, Birmingham, Bristol, Brighton, and London, are some of the ones I have heard of where trees are being so needlessly felled. I keep hearing of more places where trees are under threat or have been destroyed. A report in The Guardian, states that, over the last three years, as many as 8,414 trees were felled in Newcastle, 4,778 were removed in the county of Wiltshire, and a massive 4,435 got the chop in Edinburgh. The more I have got involved in the battle to save Britain’s city street trees, the more I have found out, and the more concerned I have become.

As it is, I often worry about what is happening to the countryside and wildlife of the UK. I keep reading of the declining numbers of so many species of flora and fauna, and sadly it doesn’t surprise me. The habitats animals and plants need are rapidly being destroyed. Among these habitats are forests, and now city trees are in danger too, and many have already been lost. City trees provide homes for wildlife, nesting and roosting places for birds, food for caterpillars of moths and butterflies, and nectar for bees. City trees help to clean the air, as well as providing the natural beauty of their greenery.

White Letter Hairstreak (Photo: Public Domain)

In Sheffield, there was the threat to a surviving elm tree and an entire colony of the endangered white letter hairstreak it supports. This little butterfly has caterpillars that can only feed on elms. After much protest about this potential eco-crime, there was even talk of relocation efforts and a scheme in which butterfly eggs were going to be looked for an moved to other elms. I was not alone in not having much faith in this plan working.

So why is this destruction of British trees happening? Making money and saving money appears to be the answer. Development companies make money by destroying what is there and putting something new in its place. Corrupt city councils save money by not having to pay for the maintenance of established trees. It is much easier to maintain a road with no trees or few trees than one with lines of mature trees. It is much easier to say trees are being replaced, and then plant some saplings, many of which will actually die. It is easy for city councillors to say they care about the health of residents and that they want to see a green city and improve air quality for the future, but then take actions which betray their words, which are just political lies.

The story of Sheffield’s trees is a tragic one. Its main players are Labour councillors and Amey plc versus campaigners who are doing all they can to stop mature and healthy trees from being killed and removed. Police and security forces have been called in to enable the tree killers from Amey to be able to get on with their destructive work.  Bizarre but true news stories have been reported, for example, of over 30 police on duty to enable one tree to be chopped down. The situation has become so crazy it is almost unbelievable, almost surreal. A woman protester was arrested for playing a toy trumpet and a priest for playing a tambourine! Campaigners, who are the true heroes and heroines when it comes to the plight of Sheffield’s trees and efforts to save them, are treated as criminals and ending up in court, while the true crooks walk free.

The public have been lied to by politicians that claim to care about their communities, and many people have learned from this that Labour councillors they voted for did not live up to their image, and were no better than their Tory counterparts after all.

The tree-felling in Sheffield has got worse and worse with respect to how the public have been treated. It has got so bad that not only are protesters being arrested on nonsensical charges by heavy-handed police but operations to fell the trees are being carried out under cover of darkness and several trees have already been killed this way.

Save Roath Trees
Save Roath Trees Sign (Photo: Steve Andrews)

It was in Cardiff that I first got involved when I went along to the parks in Roath where trees along Roath Brook had been felled or marked for future felling. Here it was not Amey plc to blame for the destruction but Natural Resources Wales, that had approved a flood defense scheme, even though there had been no flooding. Residents were rightly annoyed and saddened to see trees that provided part of the beauty of the park, and homes for wildlife, being callously marked as targets for removal. Roath Brook supports all sorts of wildlife, including kingfishers, and there have been reports of the endangered water vole living here too.

Disappearing Trees of Roath (Photo: Steve Andrews)

This haven for wildlife is not far from bustling city streets and should surely be looked after and treasured? Removing a large number of its varied tree species can only damage the site. To find that an organisation, supposedly in charge of looking after the Welsh environment was backing this eco-vandalism is shocking. But perhaps not if we think about what the word “Resources” means to these people. To my mind, this is where a great deal of the world’s problems have their source. The natural world is so often viewed as “resources”, that can be bought and sold, resources that can be used or abused by people, who so arrogantly think themselves superior to nature, not part of it and dependent on it.

Fortunately, the ‘work’ in Cardiff has been put on temporary hold, but it is by no means a victory for campaigners yet, and elsewhere in the city other trees and wildlife habitats are under threat. Redrow plc/Redrow Homes is a housing construction company that have started work on the Plasdwr development project, covered in another of my blogs. Campaigners in Liverpool are hoping to stop this company from destroying trees and parkland at Harthill and Calderstones Park.

Redrow Danger Sign (Photo: Steve Andrews)

I actually had a tweet from someone at Redrow after I had been talking about these matters at Twitter: "Hi Steve. We are translocating existing hedgerows as well as planting new native trees at our PlasDwr development. We are currently developing a new biodiversity strategy which focuses on ensuring net gains for biodiversity on our developments.  Kind regards, Nicola" My response to this was asking how can destroying established trees help ensure biodiversity when it destroys existing habitats and species that depend on them, and pointing out new trees take a long time to grow to the size of those replaced. It remains unanswered.

Stand By Tree
Singing and standing by Tree

So what can we do to help save our trees? My answer, as a singer-songwriter and performer was to sing about it. I changed the lyrics of Stand By Me to “Stand By Tree,” and “All we are saying is give peace a chance” to “All we are saying is give TREES a chance.” And also I have changed the lyrics to "Everybody's talking 'bout Jarvis Cocker, he's a rocker, celebrities, saving trees. All we are saying..."

I have been active on social media reporting on the subject of the protest campaigns to save the trees of the UK. I was made into a poster-boy for the campaigns and was interviewed by Jonathan Downes for his GONZO Weekly too.

Other activists have held public demonstrations or put themselves in the way of the tree-fellers. Many have signed petitions, and like myself, used the social media and news-media to have their say. Some brave but unlucky protesters, including poet, singer and musician Benoit Benz Compin, have found themselves under arrest. But we must carry on doing whatever we can.

I am writing a new song and it contains the lines:

"Who will stop the destruction of so many trees?
Who will save the birds, the butterflies, and bees?
It comes down to the protesters,
To campaigners, like you and I,
We cannot let them kill our world,
We cannot let it die."

Friday, 25 May 2018

Here Be Dragons

The Mysterious Dragon Tree Produces Dragon's Blood

Dragon Tree (Photo: Pixabay)

The dragon tree (Dracaena draco) is a very weird-looking plant that grows to the size of a tree and can live a very long time. One known as the “Drago Milenario,”  that grows in Icod de los Vinos in Tenerife, is said to be 1000-years-old or more, though other estimates put it at more like 650 years.

Drago Milenario (Photo: Pixabay)

Dragon's Blood

The dragon’s tree is the source of a resinous substance known as dragon’s blood, which is formed when the tree is cut. The sap that oozes out dries a dark red colour. Dragon’s blood is said to have magical and medicinal properties. It has been used in varnish and also as an ingredient in incense.

Dragon trees are native to the Canary Islands, Cape Verde and Madeira but are very rare in the wild, though extensively planted in parks, gardens, and public squares. Having lived in Tenerife for many years, I was used to seeing them around the island, so was very pleasantly surprised to find specimens of the dragon tree growing well here in Iberia too. I have seen them in Gibraltar and there are some rather splendid examples in the botanical gardens of the University of Lisbon. The dragon tree has also been introduced to the Azores.

The dragon tree grows very slowly and can take around 10 years just to reach 1 metre in height. It can flower for the first time then but will not branch until it has flowered. Each branch then takes a long time before it flowers and branches again. As this process continues the dragon tree produces a characteristic umbrella or mushroom-shaped crown of branches. Dragon trees produce spikes of perfumed whitish flowers which develop into orange-red berries, each one containing one or two very hard and almost globular seeds.

Dragon Tree Berries (Photo: Steve Andrews)

The dragon tree seed takes a month or even longer to germinate from seed and first of all produces a rosette of spiky and leathery evergreen leaves. The silvery and scarred trunk gets formed as the plant grows bigger and the lower leaves die and get removed.
The lower branches produce aerial roots which hang down and have been likened to a dragon’s beard. These roots can fuse with the trunk as they descend and reach the soil and in this way very broad and curious-looking trunks get formed in very old specimens.
Dragon trees are monocotyledons in the Asparagaceae or asparagus family, and do not produce annual rings inside their trunks. Because counting these rings is the usual way of discovering the age of a tree, it is very hard to work out how old a dragon tree actually is. It is done by counting the branching points and estimating how long it has taken to form these.
La Orotava Dragon Tree (Photo: Public Domain)

There was once an enormous dragon tree in La Orotava in Tenerife that was even bigger and older than the Drago Milenario, mentioned earlier. The naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt was amazed when he saw its height and girth. This dragon tree was 70 feet (21 m) tall and 45 feet (14 m) in circumference, and was believed to be 6000 years old. It was destroyed by gales in a terrible storm in 1868.
Heads of a Dragon Tree (Photo: Pixabay)

In Greek Mythology

Not surprisingly there is much folklore and myth built up about this strange tree, and the story goes that the first dragon trees grew when the legendary hero Hercules of Greek mythology killed the hundred-headed dragon Ladon, who was guarding the Garden of the Hesperides. Where the blood of the monster fell little dragon trees sprouted.
Dragon trees are easy enough to grow from seed but you need a lot of patience to wait for them to germinate and to produce much growth, although this plant will make a very interesting houseplant when young and a wonderful addition to the subtropical garden when bigger. They are drought resistant, and in the wild they often grow on rocky hillsides and cliffs.
Ready-grown dragon trees are sometimes available from gardening centres and ornamental plant suppliers and buying one this way could be the easier option for getting hold of one. However you get your own dragon tree, it will certainly make a great talking point, and the plant could still be alive hundreds, and maybe thousands of years, from now!
NB: Originally published in Mediterranean Gardening & Outdoor Living, July 2015.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

The Pride of Madeira

A Bugloss known as Pride of Madeira

Pride of Madeira in Sintra (Photo: Steve Andrews)

The Pride of Madeira is the common name for a spectacular looking shrub in the Echium genus of plants, many species of which are known as types of Viper’s Bugloss or “Taginaste” in Spain. Known to botanists as Echium candicans, the Pride of Madeira comes, as its name suggests, from Madeira, but it is often grown in gardens and parks throughout Iberia and in many other parts of the world. Its popularity is hardly surprising because it forms a very large bush that is covered in spring and early summer in magnificent flowering spikes of purplish-blue flowers with red stamens. The Pride of Madeira will definitely catch your eye and is very attractive to bees and other pollinating insects too, as are the other species in the Echium genus.

Red Bugloss or Mt Teide Bugloss

Red Bugloss on Tenerife (Photo: Pixabay/Public Domain)

The Canary Islands are home to very many endemic types of Echium and the Mt Teide Bugloss or Red Bugloss (E. wildpretti) is a plant symbolic of Tenerife where it grows high on the mountain it is named after. This unusual plant is a biennial that produces a large rosette of leaves in its first year which is followed by a tall flowering spike in its second year. The tiny flowers are a pinkish-red but there are many thousands of them and its flower spikes can grow to as much as three metres in height. They stand out like weird red wands above the otherworldly and barren terrain on Mt Teide, which is the highest mountain, not only in Tenerife but in all of Spain.

The Red Bugloss is a very rare plant in the wild, and only found on Mt Teide and around the village of Vilaflor which is also high in the Tenerife mountains. The plant has evolved to be adapted to the cold nights and bright sunlight by day of the habitats it is found in, though it is also grown at lower levels of the island in parks and gardens. Because of its tall flowering spikes it is one of the bugloss species often called “Tower of Jewels.”

Giant Viper's Bugloss

The Giant Viper’s Bugloss or Tree Echium (E. pininana) is the best-known Tower of Jewels bugloss. It reaches four metres in height in good conditions, and like the Mt Teide Bugloss is very rare in the wild. It is only found in the laurel forested mountains of La Palma in the Canary Islands, however, it has been commonly grown for some years as an unusual garden flower in the UK and Ireland, where sometimes it gets featured in news stories because it grows so tall.

Wild Viper’s Bugloss species found in Iberia

Viper's Bugloss (Photo: Pixabay)

There are many types of Echium found growing in the countryside of Iberia, including the type species Viper’s Bugloss (E. vulgare), which is found throughout Europe and has become naturalised in North America. It has pinkish flowers which turn rapidly blue and it is also known as Blueweed. It likes to grow in sand dunes and waste places but will often do better in cultivation in the garden where it will get larger. The Viper’s Bugloss, by the way, takes its name from the tiny forked nutlets that it produces that were thought to resemble the heads of snakes, and because it was once regarded as an antidote for the bite of an adder. The herbalist Coles tells us in his Art of Simples: 'Viper's Bugloss hath its stalks all to be speckled like a snake or viper, and is a most singular remedy against poyson and the sting of scorpions.”

One species of Echium that is very common, not only in Iberia but elsewhere in the world is known as Patterson’s Curse (E. plantagineum). Its name gives a clue to how it has become regarded, because although this small species looks pretty when it creates a small sea of purple flowers, it is an invasive weed of arable land that spreads rapidly. Isn’t it interesting to consider how some bugloss types are very rare plants while others are common weeds?

Grow a Tower of Jewels and Feed the Bees and Butterflies

Most species of Echium have a lot of nectar-filled flowers making them very attractive, not only to our eyes, but, as already noted, to bees and pollinating insects. Butterflies too love to find their food in the flowers of a Tower of Jewels. It is easy to find seeds of the various species that are easy to grow in our gardens by searching on the Internet for “Echium seeds” or “Tower of Jewels seeds”.

Growing these amazing plants can not only really beautify our gardens but be a real help to the bees and pollinators that are often struggling in the world today. Cultivating a Viper’s Bugloss provides eye candy and aids conservation!

NB: Text originally published in Mediterranean Gardening and OutDoor Living magazine, Issue 25, May 2016.

Monday, 21 May 2018

Western Spadefoot Toad or Iberian Spadefoot rescued in a garden in Portugal

A Near Threatened Species

Western Spadefoot Toad (Photo: Steve Andrews)

The Western Spadefoot or Iberian Spadefoot (Pelobates cultripes) is an endangered species of amphibian. In fact its IUCN Red List Conservation Status is Near Threatened, so I was really surprised to find one living in the front garden of the house in Portugal where I rent the ground floor. One of my pet cats was digging, and I thought she was about to go to the toilet, but instead, and suddenly, she had grabbed something and tossed it onto the ground. I could see it was a large frog or toad and immediately went to the rescue. I was amazed to find that it was a female Iberian Spadefoot. I have only seen these in photos in books and on sites on the Internet, and knowing how rare they are now, the last place I thought I would see one was caught by my cat in the garden of where I live!

Caught by a Cat

Clearly where the toad had been living, even though it was buried in the sandy soil, was not a safe place to be. My cat could hear it or smell it, and could catch it again if I put it back, I could end up harming or killing it by accident if I was digging, or the toad could get run over on the road, just yards from where it had been buried. So I resolved to move it to some local woodland just five minutes away.
Woodlands on sand (Photo: Steve Andrews)

There is an area where there is a stream and marshy section that has temporary pools after autumn and winter rains, though they are already drying up now. I took it there, thinking it would be safer. I know there are Iberian Water Frogs there, though haven’t seen any this year. I think last year’s terrible drought affected them badly in many places like this that dried out completely. Fortunately, this winter and early spring brought plenty of very welcome heavy rains. These local woodlands near where I live are very interesting because the cork oak and pine trees are mainly growing in sand. Sand martins nest in holes in the sand banks.

Pelobates cultripes tadpole about to become a toadlet (Photo: Franco Andreone)

This amphibian gets its name from its habit of digging burrows. It does this with the aid of its back feet that are specially adapted for the purpose with a black hardened projection like a spade on each one. This behaviour works well in the sandy soil so much of Portugal has, and I would never have known about the one in the garden here if my cat hadn’t detected it and dug it up. She used to be a feral cat so is excellent at hunting, and can even find toads hidden underground.

My Calico Cat (Photo: Steve Andrews)