Garden & Horticulture writing

Series of articles and photography produced for Adhoc magazine of the Convent club, Woodchester.

In The Covent Garden

In early January I visit the garden again and although it’s early afternoon the sun is already dipping below the hills behind the Covent. Ragged clouds are chased across a pale sky and there is a hint of snow in the air.

At first you might imagine there’s not much to see at this time of year. Except for a few hardy rocket plants, the kitchen garden’s raised beds are all but bare. And the skeletal branches of ash and sycamore are grey and leafless.

But despite the dormant nature of this season there is plenty of greenery in the Covent gardens. This is due to the many evergreens planted throughout the grounds. Venerable specimens of yew, box and bay lend both colour and volume to the winter scene.

Here the box – more usually encountered as a well-behaved hedge – is tree like at over twenty feet high. A Sweet Bay is an even more impressive size, its glossy aromatic leaves and pale flower buds stretching out a good thirty five feet wide and high.

There are a number yew trees throughout the grounds, all of a good age. A British native, preferring alkaline limestone soils, yew is a common sight in wild Cotswolds woodland. Planted yew trees are often associated with religious sites, churchyards in particular – such as the 99 yew trees at St. Mary’s, Painswick. So it’s no surprise that yews were planted around the Convent.

There have been many theories about the relationship between the Yew the Christian church. Some say that they were planted in newly consecrated churches as a kind of green advertising billboard, or that they offered shelter to the early Christian missionaries before the Churches were built. A more likely explanation relates to the fact the yews were considered sacred trees throughout pre-Christian Europe. Churches were often built on Pagan sites and the trees subsequently co-opted into the new faith.

Another theory relates to the fact that the deep red resilient yew wood was the material of choice for longbows. Enclosed churchyards where one of the few places where it could be grown for this purpose without fear of its toxic leaves being eaten by roaming livestock.

As I’m leaving the garden I spot, in amongst what appear to be a collection of dwarf cypresses – a juniper bush, its spiky arms waving drunkenly skyward. Juniper is another British native of chalk and limestone and it can be found on the commons around Stroud. It’s also another plant with a magical and pagan heritage. The ancient Egyptians used juniper oil to ease ones passage into the afterlife and in medieval times the boughs were burned to ward off evil.

The dark blue-purple berries of juniper take two years to ripen and one or two could still be seen amongst the pale green of young flower buds. Crushing a berry between my fingers and inhaling it spicy scent, the position of this specimen, just beyond the windows of the Convent bar seemed particularly appropriate – the berries of the juniper being one of the key ingredients of good old English gin.


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