Why I love rhododendrons, sheep and tea

For all my indifference to gardening, I love rhododendrons. Why?

Because I spent a day wandering around the world-famous Rothschild Collection of rhododendrons and azaleas at Exbury Gardens on my honeymoon in a wet June in 1990.

Because the first time that I visited Cumbria in the spring, I realised that there were literally masses of wild rhododendrons, making my favourite place even more special.

Probably because they flourish in the wild, given the correct conditions, and therefore are part of a natural landscape requiring NO MAINTENANCE.

Daughter of Mine groans whenever I say, “Ooh, look at that rhododendron!” because, apparently, I say it all the time. I don’t. Even I know they are not in flower all year round.

Anyway, since visiting Nymans Gardens in Sussex over the Easter weekend and seeing their glorious displays of this beautiful family of plants, I have added ‘plant rhododendrons’ to my ever-growing list of projects.

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But I’ve learnt during my research into the species that it’s not all good news for the rhododendron:

‘Its foliage prevents sunlight reaching forest floors and stops other plants, including tree saplings, from growing.’ – A big problem in Scotland apparently, but presumably in the Cumbrian landscape too?

The leaves, flowers and nectar of some species are poisonous. The domination of the plant in large areas effectively destroys the whole food chain; insects don’t eat it, bird numbers decline because there aren’t any insects to eat, and in turn larger predators such as sparrowhawks are also forced out of their natural habitats by the loss of prey to the area.

Allegedly, humans can get ‘Mad Honey Disease‘ by eating honey made from rhododendron flowers. Not that I plan on becoming a bee keeper, although the disease is short-lived and rarely fatal.

And according to Shepherd’s Blog, sheep have been known to die after eating the plants when other feed is scarce. Thankfully, a common antidote is at hand – a strong cup of tea (or more accurately a stomach tube, drenching gun or dosing bottle of tea). The premise is the tannins in the tea neutralise the poisons.

I just knew a good cuppa cures all.

Dream of sheep…

I turned the computer on tonight to do one thing.  And ended up doing something completely different.

What I was going to do was to continue ‘housekeeping’ on my newly revamped PC by checking all was in order with my digital photos, before writing a post about what I found during my recent tidy of the loft.  What I actually did was to log on to WordPress and got sucked into reading a freshly pressed blog post entitled Surrounded by Sheep.

To steal a line from the author, Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe, I too am ‘… forever surrounded by sheep.’

I have loved sheep for a very long time now.  I think I can trace it back to my first visit to the Lake District, where I fell in love with all Cumbria has to offer. Now every time I see a sheep, I am transported in my mind to the majestic mountains of North West England.

One of my early encounters with a sheep was on the summit of Pillar, where friends and I got talking to a group of walkers who had got into difficulties the night before and slept on the mountain in preference to heading down the mountain in the dark.  The group leader had asked us to take some of their surplus food to ease their load on the way down, which we did without question – but this lone sheep on the summit had his own ideas of how to help. Keen to check out the left-overs, he proceeded to munch his way through a packet of cream crackers, thus earning himself the nickname, ‘Jacob’, and then devoured a nectarine before deftly spitting out the stone.

Over the years I have collected, and been given as presents, many ‘sheep’ objects –  among them a sheep puppet which I bought for myself at a psychology conference in Vienna; a wooden 3d sheep jigsaw which now serves as a worthy addition to our Nativity crib at Christmas; three ceramic ‘flying’ sheep (like Hilda Ogden’s flying ducks), not to mention numerous photographs and pictures, cards and notepaper, pens, pots, keyrings and fridge magnets.

My prize sheep though is the rocking sheep given to me as a 29th birthday present from my parents.  As a child I was desperate to own a rocking horse – of course now I am a parent myself I know what a ridiculously expensive present this is to covet – yet my grandparents went some way towards satisfying my childish wants and bought me a rocking chair, which I still own.

But my lovely dad always remembered this childhood desire of mine, so of course when he saw a rocking sheep sitting outside a shop, somewhere on the way up to London I believe, he persuaded Mother of Mine that nothing else would do as a present that year.  Of course, Daughter of Mine came along about 18 months later, followed by Son of Mine, so it has been played with by children as it was intended, but always on the understanding that it’s ‘Mummy’s special rocking sheep.’  It’s now back in my room, at the foot of the bed –  so the memories are always in sight.

So I’ll leave ewe with a few more of my photographic memories of being ‘surrounded by sheep’…

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