Sunday, 22 September 2013

Architecture, wildlife & the shoo-fly plant

At 20.44 this evening, the autumnal equinox will arrive here in the Northern Hemisphere, and summer is officially over. I confess autumn is my favourite season, and I welcome the coolness, the Keatsian "mists and mellow fruitfulness" (has anyone ever expressed autumn more perfectly?), but I know many people who don't feel the same way. Well, don't despair, whatever the season, there's always something happening here in the grounds at Gibside, and this week's blog takes a look at our secretive banqueting house, some interesting caterpillars and a plant that is the talk of the garden....

The Banqueting House
Built during the 1740s, Gibside's Banqueting House is an unexpected feature nestled in woodlands and looking down onto the Octagon Pond. It's Gothic in style, with a bowed front and decorative, castle-like crenellations. It was built as a place for surprise picnics and feasts, and to refresh guests after a tour of the grounds. Although it is quite small inside, the clever use of mirrors in the "Great Room" means that, according to a 19th century description, the room appears "almost endless in length".

The Landmark Trust owns the building and funded the four-year restoration project, which finished in 1981, and took the building from a dilapidated shell to its current state of grandeur. It is now rented out as a holiday let, and is open to the public one weekend a year as part of the Heritage Open Days scheme. 2013's open days have just ended, but it's well worth making a date in your diary for 2014, as Gibside is free to enter, and the chapel's crypt is open for viewing too!

caterpillar of the Buff-tip moth
We've been very lucky this year and suffered little from attacks of pest and disease in the walled garden, but last week Gardener in Charge Keith Blundell spotted these rather striking caterpillars happily munching on some beech trees. They are the larvae of the Buff-tip moth (Phalera bucephala), a common moth found in parks and gardens throughout the British Isles. The moth is silver-grey in colouring and its wings look almost like tree bark making it quite difficult to spot when at rest. A bunch of 20 or so of these caterpillars were making quick work of defoliating a few branches from one of our beech, but this damage is of no consequence to the tree itself as autumn is on the doorstep and it will soon be shedding its leaves. Here in the walled garden we're happy to trade a few leaves for the presence of these hairy caterpillars and the lovely moths they will become. Take a look at The Wildlife Trust's page on the Buff-tip moth for more information.

Nicandra physalodes, the shoo-fly plant

Finally, there is one particular plant that has been causing a stir for the last few weeks ... and it's the Apple of Peru, or shoo-fly plant, Nicandra physalodes. Nicandra is a native of Peru, and has large bell-shaped blue flowers that open out along the length of its arching stems. Perhaps more magnificent are its Chinese-lantern style fruits that appear after flowering and decorate the branches with mottled black and green "lanterns". Each of these lanterns contains a berry about the size of a marble that is filled with seed. Not surprisingly then, if you do plant a single Nicandra, you may well find yourself with dozens the following year! It's pretty easy to keep control by making sure you pull up the Nicandra before its seeds ripen and disperse, or to hoe out unwanted seedlings that germinate the next year. The seedlings have distinctive tooth-edges leaves and black speckles. This plant grows as an annual here in Britain, providing  flowers and fruit from June to October, and perhaps even repelling the odd insect or two (though we haven't tested this!), hence its common name: shoo-fly.

Whether you're interested in architecture, wildlife, flowers, or all three, why not come along to Gibside now that autumn's here and see what you can discover?

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