Monday, March 27, 2017

Flowering Viburnum and Feathered Courtship

 
With the world spinning very quickly these days, it is more important than ever to seek some harmonic softeners in daily life. The escalation of technology has become mind-boggling especially when one considers that only 100 years ago the main duty of School Boards in rural Oklahoma was to provide hay for the children’s horses and fire wood for heat. Now more than ever the peaceful expanse of the garden is not only desirable, but a necessary means to keep one literally grounded. Whether you are six or sixty, there is no pastime more joyful than playing in the dirt… this spring plan on some serious down-time in the garden.
Nature endowed the earliest spring bloomers with the sweetest scents and the Viburnum is no exception. Of course we have the Asians to thank for the sweet spicy scent; our native Viburnum do not possess the spellbinding aroma. A member of the Honeysuckle family, Viburnum are seen all across North America, in Europe, and all of Asia, making them a naturalized global sensation. And their early arrival makes them one of the first seasonal feasts for the bees.
The Viburnum is a small tree with easy growing habits that has been a garden necessity since the early 1900’s. The Korean Spice has lovely white or pink flower clusters which appear before all of the dark and heavily ribbed leaves have matured. Their scent is sweetly enchanting, almost delicious, as it wafts through the garden carried by the breezes. And their show does not end after flowering; the flowers become berries prized by birds and the foliage turns a lovely dusty red in the fall.
Summer Snowflake, which is pictured, is another fantastic Viburnum. Although not as fragrant as the Korean Spice, it blooms several weeks later and has the most  lovely drifting layers... as though it is wearing white lace petticoats peeking from under a deep green dress. Both species are spectacular additions to the garden and promise years of carefree beauty.
The song birds have increased their activities with the arrival of mating season and since the trees are not yet totally leafed, we are allowed to watch feathered courtship rituals. Their songs have a new sweetness and they are darting about seriously flirting and ‘dating‘. The Titmouse, Chickadees, and Goldfinches are earnest, the lady Cardinals all look like teenagers, and the Woodpecker has begun rat-a-tat drilling to provide a home for babies. There is a flurry of nest construction and the choice of materials is indeed surprising... small twigs, pieces of moss, a piece of stuffing from a torn lawn cushion, a ribbon of twine are universal choices. Intricately woven, often lined with downy feathers, a nest provides a perfect habitat to hatch tiny eggs and shelter fledglings before they mature and venture out into the world on their own. Right now our feathered friends are providing delightful garden entertainment and each has a unique personality!

Monday, March 20, 2017

St Patrick, the Shamrock and Oxalis


 





Pink Oxalis



Spring was ushered in on Monday, March 19th with the Vernal Equinox...that brief moment in time when there are equal parts of both day and night. However it has been unusually hot as we also welcomed with the celebration Saint Patrick’s Day on March 17th . Those of Irish heritage celebrate his saint’s day by wearing a shamrock, planting their potatoes, and possibly imbibing large quantities of alcohol.

Saint Patrick was born a pagan in Wales in 387 and died a Christian in 461. His rock-star status continues to this day with celebrations which have surpassed the Catholic faith and become secular. Saint Patrick converted the pagan Celts to Christianity and was adept at using their sacred beliefs and symbols to describe Christian concepts... thus he used the magical shamrock to clarify the trinity. Using the tri-leaf of the clover he explained that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were each separate entities but, as the stem suggests, all part of the whole. Early converts adopted the custom of wearing a shamrock as a sign of their faith.

When the English began confiscating Irish lands, outlawing Catholism and the Celtic language in the 17th century, the shamrock became a symbol of rebellion and soon wearing a shamrock became a crime punishable by hanging. However the Irish immigrants to America suffered no such persecution and in 1737 the residents of Boston celebrated the first Saint Patrick’s day with public celebrations, parades, and pub parties.

Times do change so by the early 1900’s Queen Victoria had instructed all Irish soldiers to wear a shamrock on St. Patrick’s Day in memory of the soldiers who died in the Boer War… a custom which continues today. Additionally the Shamrock is the registered trademark of the Republic of Ireland and appears in the Royal Arms of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and on a seemingly endless array of logos which include race horses and sporting teams.

In March the lovely oxalis, the largest genus of the wood-sorrel family, magically appears in the garden… calling to Irish descendants to remember their heritage. My twenty year old friend, a lovely pink, still blooms faithfully from spring throughout the summer and will rebloom in fall if cut back in August. For something new perhaps add a purple leaf Oxalis with her halo of pale pink flowers that drift above the striking foliage… surely a stunning focal point for any garden.

Oxalis adore the shade, tolerate the heat, and even refuse to wilt if not watered regularly. Oxalis will reward the gardener with her easy-going nature and long life expectancy... happily, they will be permanent residents of the garden for many, many years.  Happy Spring!

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Plant Based Medicinal Knowledge of Our Elders


What have we lost?

I began rereading the Foxfire books again a few weeks ago. They were first published as magazine articles in 1966 but became so successful that the articles were published in a series of books. They are fascinating reading for in them one finds a multitude of little known and almost archaic information. Everything from forecasting the weather by observing the animals, insects, plants, or the patterns of fire to planting by moon signs, dressing a deer, building a log cabin, or making home remedies is covered, all of which seem timely as the recession deepens.

The articles were initiated by Eliot Wigginton, a Cornell graduate with a master’s degree, who began teaching at a small school in Rabun Gap-Nacochee, Georgia. Deep in the Appalachians, the 240 pupil school was located in a rural community where the traditional culture was dying. After centuries of self-sufficiency, interest in maintaining the life style of the mountain people had ebbed and the next generation was opting for an easier life. As the elders died, the information they carried with them was gradually being lost forever. In the final days of that culture, Mr. Wigginton asked the students to collect stories and information from their grandparents for preservation. It is fascinating reading available at most Libraries and quite inexpensively online.


In keeping with that thought, we should recognize that much information known to our grandparents has been lost to us in our community as well. In the mid 1970’s we visited Marion Wise at his home east of town on many occasions. He was truly a remarkable man. Not only was he totally self-sufficient, but he had knowledge of the medicinal qualities of plants growing in his back yard and the fields beyond. He added a little of this and that to petroleum jelly and had a salve that truly cured skin cancer. Chew this for a cough, boil that for a headache; the information was priceless. I kept meaning to talk to him about his knowledge, to learn from him the old ways, but days turned to months and months to years between visits and suddenly he was gone. His home was sold and bulldozed, his garden became a cotton field, and it all of his secrets were lost to us forever.

Mankind depended upon remedies and concoctions from the garden for thousands of years for health and vitality. This knowledge was passed down from one generation to the next and everyone understood the connection between nature and mankind. Perhaps this winter, since flu shots are in scarce supply, we should think of adding Cranberries to our daily diets. They are a natural antiviral and boost the immune system. With a little vitamin C containing rose hips, a cup of red clover tea, and maybe a blackberry cordial if we’re feeling under the weather, we should survive the winter very nicely.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Think Green and Preserve Our Precious Planet


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With the rise of environmental awareness at long last, businesses have come around and are beginning to market ‘green’. Since we are a rural community, many people have been raised with an environmental conscience so it is but a small step for us to again embrace the premise. If in doubt, the comparisons in the American standard of living today and fifty years ago make a compelling statement.

In 1950, the average household consisted of almost four people. Most homes were less than 1, 200 square feet and had one or two bedrooms and one bathroom according to the National Association of Home Builders. With a modest home and ownership of a family car, most people thought they had achieved the American Dream.

By 2003, the average household size had shrunk to 2.6 people and yet the size of new homes had doubled. Half of them have at least four bedrooms, all have two or more bathrooms. Americans own twice as many cars per person, multiple TVs, computers, and cell phones. None of this is, in itself  is bad but just how much is enough?

Betsy Taylor, president of the Center for a New American Dream, thoughtfully discusses the changes in American aspirations. For our parents and grandparents, the American Dream meant hope, an unshakeable belief that happiness and security were truly possible. That dream still exists but the original focus on security and personal well-being slowly gave way to an obsession with ‘more’. More work, more material goods, larger cars and homes did not grant contentment or bestow free time.

The disconnect with nature and the waste generated by packaging the goods is almost overwhelming and has polluted every Ocean on the planet. Changing the way one consumes to improve quality of life and protect the environment is not difficult. Going green does not mean deprivation; it means changing habits.

 Simple tips can be implemented as a lifestyle. For example borrow books, CDs, DVDs, and video games from the library and share magazine subscriptions with friends. Use fewer household cleaners; try soap and water, baking soda, or vinegar instead. Share a lawnmower and tools with your neighbors and learn to do your own repairs rather than throw things away. Turn out the lights when you leave a room and use ceiling fans to boost your cooling/heating system effectiveness. Skip prepared and frozen food by making dinners from scratch and utilize leftovers for lunches. Plant a garden and swap produce with neighbors.

With one small baby step at a time, we can preserve the resources of our precious planet.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Revisiting Poisonous Plants



Castor Bean Plant in Bloom


As spring arrives and outside activities abound it is wise to revisit plant properties know of potential dangers lurking in the garden. Plants have been source of fascination since the beginning of time. They have provided a plethora of benefits to mankind and use of them has evolved over many years. However as all gardeners know, there is a dark side to the plant kingdom and many common plants are extremely toxic causing complaints which range from indigestion, to hallucinogenic visions, and possibly even death.

Many plants contain dangerous compounds which are removed by preparation in a specific manner allowing them to thus be consumed. Our own Poke Weed is toxic unless the leaves are prepared and cooked in a specific manner. The roots, leaves, and flowers of Taro, a wild Elephant Ear, are staple foods in some tropical countries, but they too must all be cooked before eating. Some plants have parts of them which are edible while other parts are toxic. The Rhubarb, used in flavorful jellies and pies, has poisonous leaves but the stalks are not. Almost all flowering bulbs are toxic in some manner so do not allow pets to ingest any of them.

The following plants are listed as fatal, making them of particular import. The lovely Larkspur is so toxic that it was used during the Revolutionary War as a pesticide; soldiers stuffed their boots with it to repel mites and ticks. Oddly, the green berries of the lovely and prolific Lantana are fatal in small doses as are those of the Wisteria, Jasmine and Mistletoe. All parts of the Azalea and Rhododendron plants are deadly as well. The popular house plant Dieffenbachia is called dumb cane for its affect on the mouth and throat if ingested. The instant swelling not only renders the individual dumb, but may cause air-blocking swelling. Castor beans are the origin of the deadly ricin and the succulent, Mother of Thousands, is deadly as well.  

Many traditional plants have become illegal due to their naturally occurring hallucinogenic properties. The exotic Moon Flower is banned in many states and the lovely poppy was confiscated from an elderly lady’s garden in Washington since it is the origin of opium. Salvia Divinorum, an hallucinogen when smoked, was originally used in traditional spiritual practices by the Mazatec people of Mexico and now it too is banned from sale due to non-native use.

There is a simple common sense rule to follow in dealing with the Plant Kingdom: Do not graze in the woods or garden, eating or smoking what abounds unless it is something that you know and recognize as healthful… it could make you ill or even prove fatal.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Valentine Gifts for Gardeners


Bulb Planter that attaches to a cordless drill!
 
In conversation with a fellow writer last week she astounded me by mentioning she never includes the weather in her gardening columns. She is a city girl so I am assuming the weather does not have drastic significance to her. In our community the forecast is all important and a necessity to note. From high winds and burn bans to dry conditions in the garden, predictions are very much a part of rural everyday lives. Without them how would we know if we need a sweater, an overcoat or an umbrella? A nice temperature or wind gauge would be a much appreciated Valentine’s gift… checking it would stave off the boredom of February.   

February gives the gardener time to evaluate the condition of your tools. If you send your lawn mower, hedge clippers, and rototiller to the shop now, before the spring rush, they will be repaired, revamped, and ready for use without delay.

 There are several handy items one might consider as a welcome gift for your gardening Valentine. At long last technology has met practicality and created new ergonomically correct hand tools for the gardener. Ergonomically correct tools reduce stress on the joints making them a marvelous gift for any hard working gardener.

 The fabulous Felco #2 Pruners are standard issue among commercial growers and make general pruning a breeze. Felco’s #7 models with a swivel handle that allows the gripping action to have a more natural motion is an ideal gift for the gardener with a bit of arthritis. Although they are a bit pricey, they are well worth the expense for their sheer functionality. From the company Bahco, who were the inventers of the pipe wrench, comes the P2S Pruner with the promise of professional grade pruning.

And last fall we purchased a bulb planter that fits on a drill. It is indeed a miracle for under $25, digging a bulb sized hole in seconds… it proved to be fine investment as we planted 75 bulbs in thirty minutes.  

This year plan to forgo the typical transient Valentine’s Day gifts such as cut flowers and candy and give your gardener a practical gift that will express your undying love and devotion… a good tool will do exactly that!  

Monday, January 30, 2017

Tomatoes in the News... Finally

Tomatoes in the News… Finally
 
At last the flavor of tomatoes has reached the forefront of national news… on Monday a story appeared on television which addressed the flavor of current tomatoes. As all of who love them may attest tomato flavor has become more and more lackluster as years progress until they taste... well, blah. The news suggested that two flavorful tomatoes may be genetically combined to create one with true flavor.
Originating in South America, tomatoes were prized by the Aztecs as early as 700 AD. They were brought to Europe from the Americas by Conquistadors in the early 1600’s but were considered poison by the wealthy. Unfortunately, the flatware and plates of that time were made of lead based pewter and the acidic tomato caused the lead to leach from their dinnerware to the fruit. When it was eaten, the victims died of lead poisoning… a very unpleasant way to go. Peasants had no such finery in their kitchens and ate from wooden plates with wooden spoons. Thus the tomato was relegated as a food of the lower classes where it was widely accepted as a staple. Not until the 1800’s did the upper classes begin to embrace the tomato. By the time of the Civil War, the tomato was at last accepted throughout the south as a garden and dietary staple.
As I noted in 2013, ‘for almost a decade now tomato harvests have been lackluster to say the least. I can remember when a tomato plant tossed anywhere in the garden would flourish, producing an over abundance of fruit all summer. There were no requirements or procedures to ‘baby’ fussy plants… they were tough and hardy. Planted in several three week successions, one could expect tomatoes from June until October and first frost.’
Originally it was reported that tomato plants like daytime temperatures between 70 and 85 degrees. In hybridizing the tomato for growers in cooler climates, they have genetically altered the original requirements of the plant... previously tomatoes liked it hot and dry. In altering their genetic makeup, the flavor has not only changed it has been eliminated. It is obvious tomatoes simply were not suited to be grown in New England!
Americans eat over 12 million tons of tomatoes each year, making it one of the most popular items on our menu. Throughout the United States, tomato harvests have been declining and perhaps this too is because of the hybrids. The hybrid tomatoes came with a list of illnesses the tomato plant may have and they seem a bit ridiculous. Included are leaf roll, blossom end rot, sunscald cracks, and cat face and others. Various sites call for a laundry list of exhaustive remedies… all for a plant that was at one time so hardy it originated in Mexico!
In years past if the plants were not producing gardeners went outside and ‘spanked’ the plants with a broom and one of our best yields came the year the cows got into the garden and stomped the plants. Being basically masochistic, they straightened right up and produced a record crop!  here is nothing more tasteful to the palate than a fresh tomato… I look forward to them again.
*The blueberries and Strawberries were mentioned as well
*Photo: A typical daily harvest from 20 plants in 1998.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Mother of Thousands... Her Baby Succulents



 *Please note: All parts of this lovely plant are poisonous and may prove fatal to children or pets... keep away from them.
Once again the weather took center focus with frozen rain and ice accumulations, temperatures below freezing and fog. Additionally, the rain on Sunday was an added surprise and the since temperatures did not reach above freezing ice continued to form on the trees and shrubs.  Fortunately we had no wind for it was cause of the devastation of the ice-laden trees several years ago…as the wind howled one could hear hideous sounds of giant trees snapping and falling with a deadly thud. It took literally months to clean the mountains of debris that covered all of western Oklahoma from El Reno to the border.

The Succulents are enjoyed by all gardeners for their easy going nature and their ability to survive during stressful summer days, enduring where other plants may perish. The secret to their survival is their plump fleshy leaves which store water for the plant to use during extremely dry spells. However this water content is the reason they may not reside outdoors during the winter for the leaf becomes an ice tray… frozen leaves will immediately end her life. However if taken indoors in early Autumn, watered slightly once a week when the sandy top soil is dry, she will thrive until time to take her outside in the Spring.   

One of the most adorable is Mother of Thousands whose easy propagation is the reason for her name. Originating in Madagascar, this succulent has lost the ability to produce seeds and only reproduces from plantlets,  which are small baby plants growing along the leaves of the fading adult plant. As the Mother plant begins to end her life cycle, these adorable babies appear in winter along the sides of her leaves. As the babies mature, tiny sprigs of root begin to appear, growing until it is time for the youngster to literally slide down the parent leaf into the soil below to begin life alone.  

She detests soggy conditions, as do all sedums, so plant the youngsters using a terra cotta pot with drainage holes and a sandy medium, such as cactus potting mix, for fast drainage.  Shove the plantlet into a hole the size of an index finger, tamp the soil, lightly water, and a new plant will emerge and thrive.

*For those of us who feel guilt for allowing any seeding to perish without notice, Mother of Thousands will provide a challenge… for how does one find suitable homes for thousands of children?

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Winter Stew


 
 
My Stew Recipe:

Buy 2 ½ or 3 pounds of either stew meat or chuck… whatever is cheaper.  Cut into small bite sized pieces.. . this is important because large pieces do not get tender. Put in a skillet and cook over medium heat, adding salt and pepper and 2 cups of coffee to it as it becomes brown. Set aside when it is done.

In your stock pot add:

1 small cabbage, cut

Six or seven medium carrots peeled and cut in ¼ inch diameters

 1 medium onion diced

Five potatoes (unpeeled) diced.

Cover with water and begin to slowly boil. When the cabbage is limp and the carrots and potatoes are boiling, but still firm, add the meat.

On the meat add:

1 medium jar of Picante sauce… I use mild

1 can of corn

 1 can of peeled, diced tomatoes you have squeezed and broken into pieces.

Parsley, other spices you like and anything left in the frig you want to add.

 

Stir and allow to come to a slow boil. Cook stirring whenever you think about it for about 40 minutes…

Serve with a roll and a glass of wine.

The flavors meld over the next few days, so add something like more potatoes each day. Boil them first and add when they are still slightly firm… also add some of the ‘potato water’ to your stew if you want a more liquid consistency. Enjoy!!!

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Almost-Disaster Zip Line





The tree across the creek bit it in the ice storm, but you can see the drop!






We took a walk and saw the 60 foot Oak tree, with the 20 foot girth that we had put the zip line around for the kids when they were young. It was over the canyon where the creek runs and at a proper angle to actually zip with sufficent speed for a fun ride. We even had a mattress at the end so smashing was softened. We had chained an old tractor seat to sit correctly over the line and decided Lize, who was six and the lightest person in the family, should go first.

 Bad plan... she was too lightweight and the thing stopped over the creek, that had spikes of willow trees we had cut off for the project. She panicked and let go her hands and looked like she was going to jump the 25 feet to the creek... and the spears of willow.
 

I stood below her, burst into tears and coaxed, 'Baby, please, please hold on, hold on until Daddy can lasso your foot and we can pull you to this side'.

The depth of the canyon... except it has no rocks... it is red stone/dirt.


*This comment may be listed as one of the worst things you hope to never have to say to your child... it seems a bit irresponsible.. just a bit.

Michael frantically got a rope and successfully tossed it to her, where she carefully slipped it around her ankle while holding on with one hand. 

 No wonder I seem shell shocked sometimes!


*BTW, My father was afraid of heights because he always had a desire to jump... perhaps it was a genetic thing?

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Gardeners Will Garden



The urge to dig in the soil and plant a seed is as old as civilized mankind for the thrill of watching a seedling emerge and reach fruition is unsurpassed. Every nation has appropriated sites for carefully tended public grounds, and their continued popularity is a testament to our love affair with gardens. According to space and circumstance gardens may be found on grand estates, in tiny cottage plots, or even in cheerful window boxes spilling with blooms. Each provide a living testament to our desire to nurture and surround ourselves with natural beauty.

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon built by King Nebuchadnezzar II around 600 BC were considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World… quite an honor for a garden! Many royal gardens in Europe have been cherished for generations and Prince Charles of Britain has restored many while pressing a national gardening agenda. Our own Thomas Jefferson was more pleased with his gardening innovations at Monticello than all of his diplomatic successes and even his Presidency. He avidly collected seeds, cuttings, and plants from his travels, bringing them home and carefully documenting their successful progress or failure. We have him to thank for introducing many of the species we now consider standard.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the cramped and simple gardens belonging to poor laborers and factory workers in Europe were the birthplace of florist’s flowers as we now know them. A lovely example is the magnificent Carnation which was once a quarter-sized Dianthus. Petals were doubled and redoubled as enthusiastic breeders toiled in their tiny spaces after working long hours at grueling jobs. Their joy is apparent in the creations they have bequeathed us and we are grateful for their efforts.

The Berlin Wall fell in 1990 and former Communist countries were opened to the West for the first time in decades. The horticultural community was stunned at the advanced plant breeding that had occurred in impossible and suppressed conditions behind the Iron Curtain. With no laboratories, no conservatories, and little money, gardeners had persevered in their efforts to advance and improve many species and were honored by a grateful horticultural community.

Much of the hybridization we enjoy today occurred in the back yard Victory Gardens of WWII. At President Roosevelt’s request, everyone in the nation was asked to plant a garden to allow our surplus food to be sent to overseas to our troops. This program was enthusiastically adopted and petunias and marigolds were replaced by vegetables in an astonishing national effort. Most of the fresh produce consumed by the nation was grown in small garden plots and the success of this program remains unsurpassed today.

The realization that gardeners will garden regardless of hardship or circumstance is comforting. We are called to the soil for there is perpetual harmony in gardening and it knows no boundaries.

Rachel Ruysch Oil Painting: ‘A Carnation, Morning Glory, and Other Flowers.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Meeting Angels Unawares... A Christmas Story


 
It was late December and our children were still little so naturally we were broke. Christmas was coming and although we were not extravagant, we still provided special food and thoughtful gifts for all eight of them. We were entering the on ramp on I-40 to drive home from a grocery excursion and saw an elderly gentleman standing on the side of the hi-way, leaning on a wooden crutch. He was about 75 with a stubble of beard, dressed in ragged clothing, wearing an old gray hat. His belongings were in a small stained bag, and he had an old woolen blanket pulled tightly about him. I felt sudden sadness upon seeing him and asked Michael if we should stop. He said no because we had three of the children with us and he would have to squeeze him in the backseat with them. He said that surely someone would pick the old gent up for me not to worry. And yet both of us felt a nagging sadness at the old man’s plight.

The following morning we realized we had forgotten some necessary items and again made the twenty mile run to the adjacent town. It was overcast, drizzling and a very cold blasting North wind made conditions miserable. As we drove I asked Michael if he thought someone had picked up the old man. He promised me that surely someone had. We bought the last of our necessities and had only forty dollars left as we entered the on ramp.

Sweet Jesus, he was still there! How could he still be there? We stopped just beyond the old man and Michael got out of the car to help him to his seat. He settled in and I turned the heater to warp while he began thanking us. He said he was trying to make it the Indian Pueblos in New Mexico where he knew he could stay for the winter. He was Canadian and had served in WWII for the US but had been denied benefits due to his citizenship status. He had fallen on hard times and just needed a bus ticket to get on his way but could find no help in getting one. He had been standing on the side of the road for many days.

Michael suggested that we take him 15 miles to the Travel Plaza where all of the truckers stopped for gas and that perhaps he could find a ride from someone there. He gratefully accepted the idea and said he was warming up a bit. Michael stopped at the plaza and pressed our last forty dollars into the gentleman’s hand as he helped him into the building.

As we drove away we kept feeling a nagging worry and so after unloading our bundles, we drove the seven miles back to the plaza to check on him to see if he had gotten a ride. Our inquiries were met with puzzled looks for no one knew what we were talking about. No one had seen him... not the people Michael had nodded to as he opened the door, not gas attendants nor any the truckers. Only we had seen him and I have often wondered if he was there as a holy test for us... a test of our humanity, our faith, and one to show our children by example how to generously love.

As times become more difficult, let us remember that often our sense of compassion, our sense of brotherhood and our ability to unconditionally share with those less fortunate than ourselves may be tested.


And ‘Forget not to show love unto strangers for thereby some have entertained angels unawares‘.
Hebrews 13:2


*Icon Credit: Maria Sheets
 

 

 

Monday, December 12, 2016

Festivities Warm the Season... the Yule Log



Winter has appeared in all of its frosty finery, with crisp frozen mists and the crunch of ice as one walks about in the early morning.  To lighten these dark days, festivities were created by our ancestors, and many are seated in magical lore.

In Northern Europe, it was believed the dead visited during the time the land was barren, so ceremonies were created to appease them.  One Solstice festival was called ‘Jule’ , pronounced ‘Yule’ and honored Odin. Odin was the god of intoxicating drink and ecstasy, as well as the god of death and Yule customs varied greatly from region to region. Odin's sacrificial beer became the specially blessed Christmas ale mentioned in medieval lore, and fresh food and drink were left on tables after Christmas feasts to feed the roaming Yuletide ghosts. The bonfires of former ancient times survived in the tradition of the Yule Log, perhaps the most universal of all Christmas symbols.

The origins of the Yule Log can be traced back to the Midwinter festivals in which the Norsemen indulged by feasting, drinking Yule, and watching the fire leap about the log burning in the home hearth. The ceremonies and beliefs associated with the Yule Log's sacred origins are closely linked to representations of health, fruitfulness and productivity. In England, the Yule was cut and dragged home by oxen or horses as people walked alongside and sang merry songs. Often it was decorated with evergreens and sprinkled with grain or cider before it was finally set alight.

In Yugoslavia, the Yule Log was cut just before dawn on Christmas Eve and carried into the house at twilight. The wood itself was decorated with flowers, colored fabric, and doused with wine and an offering of grain. In an area of France families would go together to cut the Yule Log, singing as they asked for blessings to be bestowed upon their crops and their flocks. Their ceremony included carrying the log around the house three times and christening it with wine before lighting it.

To all of Europe the Yule Log was believed to bring beneficial magic and was kept burning for twelve hours to twelve days, warming both the house and those who resided within. When the fire of the Yule Log was finally quenched, a small fragment of the wood was saved to light the next year's log. The ashes that remained from were scattered over fields to bring fertility or cast into wells to purify and sweeten the water. Sometimes they were used in the creation of various charms...to free cattle from vermin or to ward off hailstorms.

Few homes today contain a hearth so a modest way to include this ceremony is a fire pit… the burning wood may bring the pleasure of smoke and exotic aromas wafting through the night air… and perhaps it may bestow blessings upon your home.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Natural Decorations



As Winter deepens, festive decorating reaches a zenith for no other moment encompasses such a variety of celebrations rolled into one package. Included with the birth of Christ, is the Winter Solstice, the New Year, and almost every civilization has some sort of celebration at this time. Besides religious festivities, one adds gift giving, families gathering and the general feeling of kindness toward mankind, making it indeed a miraculous season.

 Part of the ancient reason for celebrations was to ward off the boredom of deep winter, and so it is during this time that the miracle of evergreens appear all the more special. Always in the garden, yet often under appreciated during the summer season, many make a name for themselves now.

 A simple December pleasure is crafting wreaths and holiday arrangements by scouting greenery from the garden. Using a wire or simple grapevine wreath gather traditional cedar, spruce or pine boughs as a basis, for not only will they provide a stellar aroma, but their sturdiness will anchor all else that is added. Perhaps add the merriment of holly, with the interest of magnolia boughs or patterned arbor vitae. Gather interesting vines and weeds to complete the process. Add pinecones by twisting a small piece of wire around the base of the cone, leaving a bit to tie the to the wreath. One year we sprayed the wispy weeds with gold spray paint… it was the same year we sprayed our ’holiday’ tennis shoes gold as well.  And even those with seasonal allergies may appreciate a lovely outdoor decoration!

 For indoor decorations, Nandina, Holly, and Ivy are perfect companions and are virtually odorless. Both the Holly and Nandina have Christmasy-red berries that will look lovely in your arrangement. Choose a large vase, add a ‘frog’ to anchor the greenery, then begin adding your selections, turning and building as you go. By the end, if you need visual interest, scout the garden for some Pyracantha or privet berries… and spray them gold. Then pick an old pair of flats, and spray them gold too!

Privet: Spray with some snow?

 Remember that every house needs a sprig of mistletoe. For years Mistletoe was the assumed floral emblem for the state of Oklahoma so it has a special place in our hearts. (It was replaced by the ‘official’ Oklahoma Rose in 2004.) Mistletoe has a long and colorful history originating in Northern Europe, the birth place of this extraordinary plant.

 All Mistletoe plants are parasitic; they attach to a host and thus take from it nutrients and water necessary to live. Over time this process may weaken or even kill the host, giving Mistletoe a rather bad reputation. In the plant kingdom, parasitism has evolved only nine times and Mistletoe has independently evolved five, making it an extraordinary species. Mistletoe is completely self-sufficient and adaptive to changes in climate and this enigma lends itself to mysticism and lore. It hangs airborne between heaven and earth, has no roots yet bears fruit, and remains green and vibrant during the winter months, all of which defy reason. Christmas greenery is utterly fantastic!

Monday, November 21, 2016

Forcing Bulbs for the Holidays

Now is the time to give the shot of gin!
 



The days seem to be passing rather quickly and with the arrival of Thanksgiving, the winter festivities have begun so now is the time to ‘force’ some bulbs. For those unfamiliar with the process, ‘forcing’ is the method by which a bulb is planted and compelled to grow and bloom out of season by exposure to the warm temperature indoors. This process brings the bulbs into bloom long before they would bloom outdoors thus allowing us the pleasure of their company during the winter months.

Since their ancestors came from warm areas of the Mediterranean the darling Paperwhite Narcissus requires no cold to bloom and may easily forced. Taking only three to four weeks to flower, they will bloom faithfully providing both fragrance and cheer for the holidays. So easy is the growth of these bulbs that anchoring material may include gravel, pebbles, colored glass stones, or moss as acceptable mediums. Any sort of shallow growth container whether pottery, glass, or clay will work as well.

First select large, top-grade, flawless bulbs which are free of sooty mold then choose a favorite container that will be lovely as a centerpiece or focal point. Perhaps select a glass bowl for the added pleasure of watching the roots as they begin to grow and slowly twine about the stones. Grandmother’s shallow crystal bowl filled with red, white, and green glass stones is lovely at Christmas but more a more rustic selection might include a pottery bowl with polished rocks or pea gravel. If a large container is chosen, more bulbs will be needed and the display will entirely riotous… often more is better!

Fill the bottom of the container with whatever you have chosen to anchor your bulbs making a bed about two to three inches deep. Gently press the bulbs halfway down the bulb mass, wriggling and carefully nestling them until they stand firmly on their own. Try to space the bulbs about two inches apart, remembering to place several in the center as well. After arranging your bulbs, fill the container with enough water to cover your anchoring material, moistening the bulbs approximately half way up. Keep this water level, adding a little each day if necessary and your bulbs will begin to flower in three to four weeks. Remember to give the bowl a shot of gin as the first flower buds appear. The gin will slightly stunt the foliage and force it to stand ‘at attention’ thus preventing the wilt so prevalent with forced Narcissus.

As the roots grow, they provide visual interest before the reed-like foliage appears… and quite suddenly many tiny blooms arrive, slowly swelling, then opening over the course of several days. The marvelous sweet smelling flowers will last several weeks but sadly, the temperature-trickery used to force early bloom has confused and destroyed the bulb’s internal clock... they have given their ’all’ this season. After the display is over leave them in a cool place and plant them outside in the early spring. Often they will recover and bloom on schedule within in a year or so.

The link is how to cook a perfect turkey
http://www.gardening4us.com/2012/11/how-to-cook-perfect-turkey.html

Monday, October 31, 2016

Halloween and Samhain




The weather has broken most state records, resembling mid-summer more than Fall, however Sunday was the epitome perfection. Basking in the glow of windless warm sunshine, enjoying the exquisite feel of the day, it is understandable why this is a favorite season for many... cherished all the more for its fleeting passage.

As Halloween arrives it is interesting to review the origins of one of our most treasured and anticipated holidays. As with most of our holidays, its origins are deeply rooted within the pagan beliefs of our ancestors, with their celebrations altered to adapt to Christian faith. The Celtics, a once powerful people of central and northern Europe, gathered for their New Years celebrations at end of harvest and their beliefs are included in Halloween as we know it. The celebration of their New Year, called Samhain (Irish-Gaelic for 'the Summer's end’) took place on October 31st, which is coincidentally our Halloween.

It was believed border between the worlds of the living and the dead is thinnest on this night, allowing the souls of the deceased to enter the land of the living. So for this one night hearth fires were extinguished so their light could not be seen to either guide or frighten the returning souls. Gathered in celebratory groups, these tribal people lit huge bonfires of sacred oak branches to drive away evil spirits and warm the living. Costumes were worn so the Lord of Death could not recognize and then come claim one in the coming year. Often animals were sacrificed, fortunes were told, and at the end of the night with the safety of dawn, hearth fires were relit from the bonfire to ensure happiness and prosperity as the New Year began.

The Roman Church decided to make All Saint’s Day on November 1st to coincide with the Celtic festival. All Saints' Day was instituted as a holiday in the year 609 and it was moved from May to November in 834 after the Church discovered the importance of the Celtic rituals. On All Souls Day poor people went ‘a-souling’ (or begging) for ‘soulcakes’ in exchange for the promise they pray for the dead in purgatory and from this came our custom of ‘trick or treating’.

These beliefs arrived in Mexico directly from the Roman Church and are still celebrated with ‘The Day of the Dead’ as family members welcome deceased relatives home for the night. Their grave is surrounded by welcoming candles and a place at the table is set for them as their favorite foods are prepared. Generations gather and complimentary stories about the deceased are told as they are welcomed home for an evening with loved ones.

Any way it is viewed historically, the customs surrounding the death of summer also honor the dead, complete with the belief that mortal souls return to wander the earth. Autumn leaves, Jack-o-lanterns, bobbing for apples, costumes, black cats, and fortune-telling all evolved from these pagan customs. It is amazing that these ancient Celtic rituals, which have become our Halloween, continue to be embraced and still flourish today.
Thousands upon thousands of birds arrived to bathe in the pond before the festivities began...
 

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Tips for Planting Tulips and Storing Seeds



 With the arrival of Fall it is time to perform a number of important garden tasks and the weather is perfect! Bulbs planted now will settle in over the winter and arrive early next Spring and there is one important tip to assure their survival from any number of pests who would enjoy eating or moving them about. As you plant your bulbs, sprinkle the hole you ha...ve dug with scented baby powder and coat the bulbs by placing them in a plastic bag half full of talc and tossing them about. I have done this successfully for many years and considered the information released this month about talc being a cancer causing carcinogen… perhaps the critters intuitively sensed this before our scientific community recognized it and have purposefully avoided it. 

 Dig a hole that is twice as deep as your bulb and place it firmly before covering it and mashing the soil around it. It is wise to place a small stake (or stick) above each bulb to prevent accidentally digging one up as you continue to plant. In fact it is also wise to gently dig several inches down and feel about for previously planted bulbs to avoid disturbing them… it is always distressing to dig and sever a resting bulb as you plant new ones. Water your garden after planting and remember to water on fine days during the winter.
 

The joyful tulip will arrive at the garden party with the first blush of Spring, promising the garden season has indeed arrived. Tulip bulbs are readily available and easily affordable and the color and scale is breathtaking. There are tulips that resemble Peonies, scented tulips, multicolored tulips and variation in size from demitasse to luncheon plate. One may choose common or frilly, parrot or scented, and all are delightful. Dutch bulbs will not mature properly or flower a second year without a cold winter so expect to plant each year in warmer zones. They are well worth the effort to plant… if only for one season.
 

Prior to the inevitable freeze collect seeds for those that have adapted to the garden will have a memory of conditions within it and fare better. Make sure all dew has dried and allow the seeds to continue drying on paper plate in the house before storing them. Plastic bags are good for storage and a valuable tip is to place one of those silica packets that seem to be in every item purchased in the bag with the seeds. These packets will absorb any moisture possibly left in the seeds, keeping them fresh until time to plant in the spring. Remember to label them!
 

*Photo from my first bed of Tulips, planted 20 years ago... I was delighted by them.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Dazzling Dahlias


The mornings of late have the serene peaceful feel of Autumn… crisp and subtle, ideal and idyllic. Fall is a delightful season to enjoy being outside whether taking a walk or working the garden.

To the utter delight of the gardener, the late arrivals at the flower show have begun to bloom…the dazzling Dahlia is finally producing a fabulous show. Among the most stunning flowers available, her ability to tolerate summer heat is a testament to her Mexican origin since hot and dry is her favorite climate condition. To honor her tenacity and beauty, the Dahlia has been the National Flower of Mexico since 1963.

The first dahlia tubers were discovered by invading Conquistadors in the 1500’s, who erroneously thought the tubers to be potatoes…. until of course they sprouted and bloomed on the voyage home. Following their first introduction to Court, many unsuccessful attempts were undertaken to obtain and cultivate the Dahlia and from 1660 until 1751 all efforts were unsuccessful. However viable seeds sent from a botanical garden in Mexico reached Madrid in 1791 and the first flowering dahlias began to appear in Spain. The following year seeds were sent to England but were lost, as were those sent to the Netherlands in 1804. After much effort, cultivation was finally assured in 1813 and the results are the ancestors of the astounding flowers we see today.

The color spectrum is as variable as the size of the blooms, assuring there is a dahlia for every garden, large or small. From the tiny pastel Humpty Dumpty to the huge Dinner Plate varieties, the diversity of the Dahlia is endless. They make lasting flower arrangements which appear professional regardless of the growers talents. The flowers must be cut in early morning at the leaf junction. Place the stems in a glass of warm water for a few minutes then recut the stems at a right angle. Arrange the flowers after removing all below water foliage to prevent water contamination. The resulting arrangement will last a week or more if the water is refreshed and stems recut after three or four days.

The bulbs, all of which will have reproduced nicely over the season, must be dug before a freeze. Dry and store them and over the winter, then plant once the ground has thawed. The Dahlia is well worth the effort.


Photo Credit: Michael Weishan

Monday, September 19, 2016

Wickedly Marvelous Spider Webs


 

Spiders are making a remarkable appearance in the garden this fall… there seems to be an immense population of them this year. Several new insights which have been the subject of rigorous research help in our understanding of this marvelous species.

Firstly, spider silk has long been considered one of the toughest known natural fibers and anyone who has ever watched an insect struggle to escape a web can attest to this. It is light and flexible and stronger by weight than high grade steel, making it perfect for hospital sutures and at the opposite end of the spectrum, military body armor.

However production of large quantities of spider silk has been a challenge. Scientists have been attempting to produce spider silk by genetically altering silk worms who mass produce silk for use in fabrics. *Their silk does not in any way have the strength of spider silk.  

Genetically altering the silk worm would allow for mass production of spider silk and the offspring of those silk worms would retain their new found ability to produce spider silk. Kim Thompson, CEO of Kraig Laboratories in Lansing Michigan, reports they have succeeded and are currently testing gloves made of spider silk. According to Thompson, ‘It’s a huge and sexy market’.  (Yes, that is a quote.)

Other news about spider webs was a bit more altruistic and uplifting.  In a recent article by George Dvorsky, he comments on studies conducted by  researchers in the United Kingdom and Spain who noted that spiders are capable of fine tuning their webs. Various signals are sent through the tension of a web, including the condition of the web and the presence of prey. The authors liken the web to a finely tuned guitar, as each strand of the intricate web transmits a vibration across several frequencies, allowing the spider, whose eyesight is minimal to ‘feel’ what is happening in his home.


The spider is also able to assess the environment, as each will collect the web and seek shelter if storms are approaching. Once over, the web will be quickly reassembled and life resumes as usual.

In my own observations, I have noted that the instant prey has accidentally flown or fallen into a web, the silent spider, resting quietly in the center of the web, will race as a streak of lightning to the exact spot, twisting and tumbling the poor victim into a cotton-like shroud, to be eaten then or saved for later as desert. Considering the strength of the web and the inhabitant dwelling within, it is small wonder we all dance the rapid hand-slapping, hair-jiggle-jarring jig when accidentally walking into a web on a fine Fall evening!

Monday, September 5, 2016

Spiders on the Move as Fruit Flies Abound




 

It becomes abundantly clear that Fall has arrived when quite suddenly the kitchen is loaded with tiny fruit flies. Appearing as out of thin air they hover about any piece of fruit in a small swarm... jiggling a ripe tomato will cause fruit fly panic.


They reproduce in a mere 8 days which is the reason that Gregor Johann Mendel used them in his scientific studies on biological features passed on through inheritance. Mendel noted that varying degrees of red in the eyes of fruit flies were directly passed to offspring and although his findings were largely over looked in 1885, further studies were conducted and by 1915 became the core of classical genetics. It is amazing that modern studies of DNA began with the humble fruit fly. 



Fruit flies are so small they may fly through a screen and they are beyond detection on fruits and vegetables picked outside or purchased at markets. They eat yeast produced by fermentation, the process that converts sugar to acids or alcohol which appears as fruit is beginning to spoil. The flies reproduce on the skin of these fermenting fruits or vegetables and suddenly you have a tiny swarm of adult fruit flies which will disappear as rapidly as they appeared as Fall progresses. 

 
With the advent of Fall spiders are on the move as well. Spiders are found in every corner of the planet, making them one of the most common invertebrates and they alone have eight legs. Spiders evolved about 400 million years ago, and were among the first species to live on land. All are predators which make them valuable to the gardener as they will eat flies, mosquitoes, grasshoppers, locusts, cockroaches, and aphids. Many live more than on season, with a gentle Tarantula in California living over fifty years in captivity.



There are many references to the spider in popular culture, folklore and symbolism. The spider symbolizes patience for its hunting with web traps, and mischief and malice for its poison and the slow death they cause their prey. Though not all spiders spin gossamer webs, spiders have been attributed by numerous cultures with the origin of basket-weaving, knot work, spinning, and net making. Lovely pottery artifacts featuring spiders may be found in all ancient cultures, so respect for them is universal.

 

Last week I found a gauze-like spider nest that had been hidden between the leaf of a Caladium. I had opened the leaf and kept vigil, watching the nest grow until dozens of teeny tiny baby spiderlings began to slowly emerge. The babies tentatively left the nest, each producing their first microscopic thread of silk as they moved about; they were fascinating!

The Fall garden  contains so much magic... observing the wonder of it will carry you through the rigors of winter.  

Monday, August 29, 2016

My Mimosa... her parting gift




As I wrote in August of 2013, The Mimosa was introduced to the United States as an ornamental specimen in 1785 by Filippo Degli Albizzia, a Florentine nobleman. Arriving from Asia, it is also referred to as the Silk Tree for the texture of its flowers. The sweet scented flowers have long threadlike pink stamens which are white at the base. They bloom from June through July as stunning pink powder-puffs which drip with sweet nectar. Covering the trees, these blossoms attract hummingbirds, honeybees, and butterflies.

This species of tree likes it hot and dry and thrives in the southern regions of the United States with relative ease, growing up to three feet a year, and providing a lovely canopy of mottled shade allowing the grass to grow underneath the branches.

As with almost every plant and tree on the planet, the Mimosa has medicinal properties as well. The bark is a bitter and an astringent containing compounds which are used to shrink inflamed tissues. They are also used to relieve pain, and contain a sedative which was used to treat insomnia or anxiety. They increase blood circulation and thus treat heart palpations, and also act as a diuretic.

 

The lovely flowers were used to relieve a constrained liver and acted as an antitoxin providing a cleansing effect on the body. They have a sedative affect and were used for symptoms of anxiety, insomnia, irritability, and poor memory. The concoctions made from flowers also relieved pressure in the chest and gastric pain. Apparently the spectacular Mimosa was a cure all for many ailments and it is truly a loss that the ‘recipes’ for its many uses have been lost over time.

 



The life span of the Mimosa is but 10 to 20 years and sadly, mine has developed a contagious and fatal disease which is rapidly spreading across the South. The disease is known as Mimosa wilt and although it begins as a fungus in the root system, external symptoms include leaf yellowing and wilt by early to midsummer. Some trees die within a few weeks after first wilting but most die slowly over a year, branch by branch.


Prior to death, trees ooze a frothy liquid from cracks and grow sprouts on trunks. It is this liquid that is her parting gift for it must be amazing in benefits. An abundance of insects have collected at the outside juice bar, all sharing in peaceful harmony... I have observed no squabbles. Butterflies, house and horse flies, many species of ants, shiny green June bugs, bees, three species of wasps, including the notorious and agressive red one have all gathered at dawn to take their fill of the marvelous juice.


May my Mimosa RIP...  I shall miss her.


Monday, August 22, 2016

Spiders on the Move




 

One of the earliest signs of Fall is the almost frantic actions of the spiders who seem in a rush to reproduce or prepare to hibernate. Spiders are a most interesting invertebrate in both appearance and habit. All are predators which make them valuable to the gardener as they will eat flies, mosquitoes, grasshoppers, locusts, cockroaches, and aphids. The habits differ among species with some making intricate webs to trap their prey while some lie in wait on flowers and some simply travel about on the ground.

 

Most spiders live one season, however some species live long lives and spend the winter in a semi-hibernation. The Fiddlebacks have hidden in the rafters, behind the books, under the bed, and in other out of the way places ready to begin winter hibernation. Over the Winter they will grow and shed last years 'shell' leaving behind the empty casing... the empty casing is a sign that a more mature one is lurking somewhere nearby. The gentle Tarantula has an extremely long life expectancy and will easily live up to 20 years in captivity. The record has been set by a female who resides in LA and although her age was unknown at the time of her capture, she is now fifty years old.


Spiders are found in every corner of the planet, making them one of the most common invertebrates and they alone have eight legs. True spiders (thin-waisted arachnids) evolved about 400 million years ago, and were among the first species to live on land. There are many references to the spider in popular culture, folklore and symbolism. The spider symbolizes patience for its hunting with web traps, and mischief and malice for its poison and the slow death they cause their prey. (Who could forget the pitiful death sequence in the movie ‘The Fly’?)

Though not all spiders spin gossamer webs, spiders have been attributed by numerous cultures with the origin of basket-weaving, knot work, weaving, spinning, and net making. Lovely pottery artifacts featuring spiders may be found in all ancient cultures, so respect for them is universal.





Any talk of spiders includes the two most dangerous in
North America and they must be addressed. All spiders have venom however the Black Widow and Brown Recluse (Fiddleback) are very dangerous species whose bite may have disastrous affects on humans. The Brown Recluse likes living in quiet corners of the house while the Black Widow universally resides outdoors. A member of the Tangleweb family, the Black Widow makes an untidy web as the name implies and will aggressively guard her egg sac. Tomato baskets are a favorite place for her nest... so collect carefully. Tangleweb spiders have thin legs and a fragile skeletal structure, making them easy to squish... do not hesitate to kill them. You will notice a trace of the deadly 'goo' afterwards. 

 

A favorite spider which comes to mind is the darling fuzzy black jumper.
One summer we had a black fuzzy with emerald green fangs who took up residence in the kitchen. Every morning as the household awoke and greeted her, she would lift her 'arm' and wave... a marvelous trick by any standard.



 

There is an entire psychological phobia named after fear of spiders called Arachnophobia. So popular is this fear that comic book creator Stan Lee embraced it, introducing an irresistible spider hero in 1962. Spiderman instantly became an all time favorite.