Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Magnificent, Magical, and Versatile Verbena

Sunday was a perfect Day... spring arrived! For anyone who has access to a baby born last spring or summer the joy of introducing a little one to the great out doors is immeasurable. Sockless tiny toes placed on the first soft green grass... crinkling, curling, footie-feeling fun.

As we begin deciding what we will add to the garden this year, consider an old fashioned Verbena. Blooming in sweet flowering clusters of pink, blue, lavender, Verbena has all of the charm of its cousin Lantana, but none of the poisonous properties. Growing fuss-free in dry sunny spots, it requires only a weekly watering and will send tendrils over the edge of a planter or spread nicely while tucked in a crevice of the rock garden. Although not highly scented, Verbena attracts a host of bees and butterflies as it blooms from Summer through Fall.

Verbena has stood the test of time and is mentioned in ancient texts which speak of her medicinal, mytological, and symbolic properties. Verbena is mentioned in Eyptian text which write the flower sprang from a tear of Isis, the goddess of Fertility ,and with that connection it was been used since that time to treat women's issues. The Greek Hippocrates wrote a decoction of Verbena acts as an antiseptic and cures gum disease. *A decoction is made when a plant or herb are boiled in water to release its chemical properties. A decoction may also be prepared by placing the herb in oil, allowing it to steep (set) for several days... Verbena becomes vervain when decocted in oil. Vervain is used today in perfume, hand creams, lip balm and flavors the famous green liqueur from the region of Le Puy-en-Velay, France. Scientists are currently researching it as an ingredient in new medicinal compounds as well.

Perhaps because of its hallucinogenic properties, Verbena has long been associated with magic. Native American tribes have used it to induce visions to 'the other side'... which I do not recommend. It has been popular for centuries as a charm against evil and was used an offering on Roman altars. It is one of the herbs engraved on Italian folk charms which were traditionally hung above a baby's cradle. According to writer John Aubrey in 1721, 'Vervain and Dill / Hinder witches from their will' and by 1870 Jean-Baptiste Pitois was using it to make a charm against evil spells.

Most recently, it has emerged in popular culture through the series of novels 'The Vampire Diaries' where vervain is used to protect humans from vampires. In Volume II, The Struggle', Stefan tells Elena to rub the oil from the seeds on her skin, bathe in them, and sleep with a sprig of Verbena under her pillow to keep her mind clear from vampire induced visions or enchantment.

Symbolically Verbena given as a gift is an expression of love and often they were planted asking for prayer. It is a magical, marvelous plant; perhaps one needs to plant it by the garden gate... just in case

Monday, February 23, 2015

Pistachios... the Perfect Nut

As we noted last week, winter was not yet through with us... it was simply teasing us with warm weather last week. The storms that have arrived with a venomous velocity certainly took their toll on travel. From Dallas to Atlanta as far North as Providence Rhode Island, travel by road, train or plane was at a standstill. It is to be expected this time of year, and hopefully after the next bit rolls through on Friday, we will have a calm entrance to the lovely month of March.

As mentioned in the Bible, there is a time for every purpose under Heaven, and thus it is with nuts. Nuts arrive right on schedule as the last Fall harvest ends and the landscape falls barren until the arrival of the earliest winter proof edibles. To sustain mankind over the rather dismal months of winter, Nature was kind enough to present us with a hardy and highly nutritious meal encased in a protective shell. From Pecans to Walnuts, Cashews to Almonds, Peanuts to Cashews, there is a flavorful nut for every taste.

Nuts are actually considered a fruit encased in a hard shell. The frost proof shell is imperative to keep the fruit safe from harm as most nuts mature in late fall. The nutritional value is limitless and the culinary fun of choosing and then opening a tasty gem is marvelous.... they will add unique flavor to almost any meal or desert.  Thursday is National Pistachio Day so we should all enjoy some in grateful recognition of this ancient fruit.

Pistachio trees are said to have originated in Syria and traveled through the Middle East and Central Asia to all parts of the world where temperate climates exist. Part of the Cashew family, the Pistachio is considered a delicacy and is part of the weekly diet of those living in Iran, Syria, Turkey, Greece, Egypt, India, and Italy. California produces world famous Pistachios and is second to Iran in production. In 2013, the City Council of Avenal, California, proclaimed the city to be the Pistachio Capital of the World.

Seed opening tools and remains of Pistachio seeds have been discovered dating back 78,000 years in Israel and they were among the plants in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in in 700 BC.  The Pistachio is one of three seeds mentioned in the Bible (Genesis 43:11), with the almond and walnut mentioned as well. Pliny the Elder, a favorite for his observations, mentioned in his writings they were brought to Greece by a Roman Proconsul to Syria in 35 AD and by the 6th century, Monastic manuscripts indicate they were well known in Europe as well.  

The internal kernels are often eaten whole, either fresh or roasted. Delicious Pistachios are used in ice cream and the Italian desert, spumoni, and the Russian baklava use them as a base... the list of uses for this delicious, delightful little nut is endless. In July 2003, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first health claim specific to seeds lowering the risk of heart disease... the pistachio became famous overnight. Happy National Pistachio Day!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Kitchen Renovation Project

It's completed with exception of minor touching up. It is updated and functional for another thirty years! It was quite stressful having everything in disarray, but it is worth it.

Before and During:
Old Formica

Dishwasher installation

Cabinets being painted

Monday, February 16, 2015

Feed the Birds... and Wait for Spring!

The predicted blizzard has come and gone without giant velocity; hopefully everyone took heed and were prepared to stay inside for a few days. The North East half of the nation is experiencing terrible weather conditions with record breaking snow fall accompanied by hurricane force winds. To be classified as a blizzard, there must be snowfall, regardless of how much, accompanied by winds of at least 35 MPH for at least three hours. They had winds up to seventy miles per hour in some places and the accumulated snow will take many months to thaw. I lived in Connecticut for one of the record breaking winters, and by the time of the April thaw, the snow had become a soggy black mass from auto pollution and muck. Our petite amount of snow was perfect for tossing out poppies to assure their growth.

Everyone watched the gray sky and the approaching cold front since our sweater weather was slated to plunge. And by late afternoon the winds picked up their pace and people were rushing to be inside. The early cold raindrops suddenly changed sleet pellets, which clung in frozen digits on the side mirrors of passing cars. Indeed for a few scant moments, it was oddly interesting to see rain drops and sleet falling simultaneously. The winds began and could be heard howling, their voices predicting the inevitable power loss from which we were spared this time. An interesting fact is that OG & E reports it takes only 1/16th of an inch of ice on lines to cause a power outage... and loss of electricity, quickly dashes any sense of Valentine romance. 

 All day on Saturday and Sunday the birds instinctually knew of the impending storm… they were at the feeder the entire day, stocking up as it were. Many of the birds had begun building nests during the balmy spell last week so they quite possibly are in shock. This is the time it is important to feed them for the duration of this bad weather so they remain healthy. A mixture which contains cracked corn is excellent since eating corn produces a higher body heat than other feed and will keep our feathered friends warm.

Rajah seemed tired of the wind~

The outdoor Geraniums that are currently being housed until spring were in shock when they first arrived inside so many lost leaves and produced lackluster growth with the change of their environment. For months spindly stems and pitiful blooms have made them appear half their former selves as they impatiently wait to go outside again. However if one looks closely, the tiny new leaves that are being called forth appear robust in form and color. It is time to prune them so the energy lost in futilely attempting to keep the old growth alive may be transferred to the new. Drastically pinch back your plant, removing small yellowing leaves, old unhealthy growth, and bare stems. The Geraniums will appear unsightly but by the time to take them to the garden, they will have totally recovered from being a boring houseplant and will be ready to bloom their hearts out for you.
Stay warm... each day we are closer to Spring!

Friday, February 13, 2015

Stories from my Childhood for Lize and Julia

Julia and her brother Evans         

 When I was keeping Julia yesterday, after our walk, our excursion to the creek, and our quest to gather walnut shells, we became rather tired. I took her to my rocking chair, pulled her into my lap, covered her with a quilt, and asked if she wanted to hear a story of when I was a little girl. She did indeed and listened raptly, wanting to hear more and more of them... I told her stories for over an hour as we rocked and rested.

Here is one of them:
I used to visit my neighbor whose property was behind my parents on an acre... it belonged Marynette Thompson and her husband Phil, who was an attorney. There was a small gate leading from my backyard to her orchard so as little girl, I was allowed to wander through it to visit. She was always pleased to see me and would offer me either breakfast or lunch according to the time of day.

Her elderly parents lived in adjacent rooms upstairs with a bathroom between them... they never ventured out. Both were in their mid to late 90's and I found them fascinating. I called them Pappy and Mammy Ross, and although they were rather hard of hearing, we managed to converse quite well.

Pappy Ross used one of those old fashioned bull-horn type things he would put in his ear if he was particularly interested in something I was telling him. He had been a country doctor and he would tell me stories about making house calls, often in the dark of night, in his horse and buggy... the adventures he had riding about in the wild Indian territory at the turn of the century were wonderful. He also told me his famous quote: 'Catherine, medicine is for giving, not for taking', which I took to heart at age seven so I rarely take medicine even now.

Mammy Ross was tiny and frail but her busy hands were never still. She was always doing some sort of sewing or painting. She had an ancient scraggly green parrot that actually said 'Polly wants a cracker'... but he was incredibly scary and rather cross on a good day. She made me a china doll with a beautiful face she had painted for my eighth birthday. She had a full wardrobe of dresses, bonnets, and pantaloons... I still have her.

Miss Marynette had a two tiered lily pond with a waterfall and huge goldfish in the bottom pool... it was the first one I ever saw and I'd spend hours watching them. Sometimes she would let me feed them a few stale bread crumbs and they would eagerly gobble them up.

When I was a little girl I wandered the neighborhood a lot, visiting the retired folks who always seemed glad to see me. It was a safe and blessed childhood and I was extremely fortunate to have had it.

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Language of Flowers and Valentine's Day

"The Pink Rose symbolizes lesser affection than the Red Rose"      
The spring and summer weather over the weekend and into the week has allowed the gardener time to do some much-needed watering. It is always amazing that the slightest moisture immediately brings green to life and the misty rain last week woke the wheat. The tiny tips of the optimistic early bulbs are emerging in a such brave and stalwart manner as though spring is here to stay, which we all know is untrue. However since they have anti-freeze within their internal makeup, even though a winter cold snap will nip them, they will be the first to bloom.

Filling the void between the holidays and spring, Valentine's Day is a delightful interlude for on this one day the enchantment with flowers reigns supreme. February fourteenth was originally a celebration by the Church honoring several early saints named Valentinus, however in the Middle Ages the date became associated with Love.

As new flora was discovered in far away places flowers took on special meanings so a trend of the day included writing of the 'Language of Flowers'... flowers spoke to the public in an ever-popular symbolism. Flower symbolism had been used by the Japanese, Chinese, Arabs, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, the Bronte sisters, and many, many more, however Joseph Hammer-Pugstall's 'Dictionnaire du language des fleurs' , written in 1809, took the trend to a new level and appears to be the first published list assigning flowers with symbolic definitions. The first dictionary of floriography appeared in 1819 when Louise Cortambert wrote 'La langage des Fleurs'

In her dictionary flowers were assigned symbolic and emotional characteristics, such as the one assigned the Rose. *The deep red rose and its thorns symbolize the intensity of romantic love or the trials of Christ, pink roses imply lesser affection, white roses suggest virtue and yellow roses deep friendship. The black rose is associated with death or dark magic. It also characterized he folding foliage of the Mimosa as a symbol of chastity, the Lily of the Valley was representative of a chaste nature, and so forth. With a meaning for every flower, often one suiting its nature, it is quite a fascinating study.

Armed with floral dictionaries, the Victorians exchanged small bouquets or floral arrangements which sent a coded message to the recipients. This allowed them to express feelings which were discouraged in a society that feigned public displays of affection. These arrangements secretly spoke volumes and those familiar with the code readily, and joyfully, read the messages. By the mid-eighteen  hundreds, there was no better day to declare love than Valentine's Day, which became the occasion when family, friends, and lovers express affection through flowers, confections, and cards.

Happy Valentines Day... remember to tell someone you love them.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Beguiled By Begonias

Winter arrived Monday morning with unexpected temperatures in the teens accompanied by a frosty wind.  Naturally Punxsutawney Phil, the Pennsylvania Groundhog, predicted six more weeks of Winter. The fact a groundhog is the principal seer, the most-wise consultant, is a bit silly, however the well respected Farmer's Almanac had also predicted a harsh winter.

Perhaps 2015 will be the year of the Begonia, a large family of most interesting plants. The Begonia was commonly thought originate Brazil,  however history has shown  the Chinese used them medicinally as early as the 14th century. Uses varied from disinfecting wounds to reducing swelling, and easing the symptoms of a cold. Often the sap was used to stop a tooth or stomach ache or cure a kidney ailment, . The first documentation of their discovery was by a Franciscan monk, Charles Plumier, who found fibrous begonias in Brazil in 1690 and shipped them back to Europe.

Since Begonias originate in tropical regions they require warm temperatures to flourish... their favorite habitat is the forest where they thrive at the feet of the old growth trees. Therefore, the gardener must attempt to duplicate those conditions for them to do well... deep shade, nice mulch, slightly moist soil are perfect for them.   

The most popular Begonias belong to the tuberous family who thrive nicely in a container. Since shade is a requirement, while container-bound they may be easily moved as garden shade changes during the course of the season with the journey of the Sun.

Wax Begonias are among favorites for summer garden plantings as well. A member of this group is the fantastic 'Dragonwing' Begonia, who has larger leaves and flowers than her normal counterparts.
In considering Begonias remember to include the most interesting of all.... the amazing 'Escargot', with intriguing multi-green leaves which swirl about into a small circle at the leaf center. She may grow to be an extremely large tropical plant and is indeed a show-stopping focal point in any garden setting.

Most begonias are easily propagated by from stem cuttings. After cutting sections plant them in a potting medium and if tenderly checked, soon small wispy root tendrils may be seen... baby Begonias are being born! By performing the simple process of propagation, you may easily increase your number of Begonias without the cost of purchasing additional plants. 

Photo: Escargot Begonia via Douglas E. Welch

Monday, January 26, 2015

All You Wanted to Know About Crows

Not a pretty bird, nonetheless he is impressive.

The snow storm of last week dumped over ten inches on Dill City and but a smattering in Piedmont... for once the weathermen were correct. The winds have been rather horrific, with Sunday producing fifty-three mile per hour gusts... it was a hang-onto-your-hat kind of day. This week promises mild temperatures, however it is simply teasing us; expect winter to last at least another month.

The gathering of crows is impressive this year as they may be seen quietly perching in trees by the hundreds before suddenly mass-flying in a graceful circular dance. These communal social gatherings are called a roost and some may contain thousands during the non-breeding winter months. During the breeding season, Crows tend to congregate exclusively among their extended family, which may include many generations.

Crows mate for life and they have a very long life span... the oldest on record lived to almost thirty years. The female incubates the eggs, however her mate will bring her food and guard the nest when she leaves for short excursions. It has been noted that frequently a younger cousin may slip in and sit on the eggs or nestlings, which is a sign of their close family ties. 

Crows are considered to be among the world's most intelligent animals with an IQ approaching that of  apes. They are capable of tool use and construction, often picking up twig to dig grain from a bale. Crows have been noted to engage in feats such as air sports and they have the ability to hide and store food across seasons, placing grain in carefully selected crevices. They have a memory which recognizes individual faces and habits of humans and use experience to predict the behavior of those they encounter. If one has been kind to a Crow, he will remember you just as he will remember if you have not. If one splits the tongue of a young crow, he may speak perfectly, answering questions correctly, and he may even count to five.

Naturally there are mythological stories of the Crow and they rank among the most prolific, with tales from all parts of the world transforming them into magical supernatural beings ranging from a hero to trickster. It has been said the Crow or Raven was the principal envoy of the Maker of Life, Odin and Apollo; one served or defied the Wind, the Lords of Death, and Satan. They were said to have brought the sun, stars water, tides and humans into this world. The Crow was believed to guard the fortunes of England and thus they were kept in the Tower of London. He is included in two of Aesop's Fables... the stories of the Crow's interaction with humans are endless and span every past or current religion or belief.

Farmers may lament the crow for his habit of stealing grain, however we must remember to thank them for taking over an unpleasant task since our carcass-cleaning Vultures have migrated. During this leafless time, the gathering of Crows are easily visible so enjoy their majestic flights this winter... they are truly an amazement.    


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Our Sunrise

Our morning sunrise was spectacular... it is exactly the reason I live in the middle of nowhere. No sounds but the birds and the wind, no cars or trucks moving along the roadway, no bustle at all this morning. Have a great day!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Allergy Medications 101

Cedars are pollinating, and everyone seems to be feeling the effects. If symptoms become too much to bear, allergy medications are in order. Here is a simple explanation of them...

Allergy Medications 101
Medications for Allergies~  For basic relief, take an antihistamine. There are many kinds of antihistamines, most of which do not require a prescription. The antihistamines that have been around for a long time are called first-generation antihistamines. These have been used for many years and are considered very safe and effective. Some of the best-known ones are Benadryl, Demeaned, Chlor-Trimeton and Zirtec-D. The main negative to these antihistamines is that they cause most people to become sleepy, however the effect may be modified if one takes a low dose headache remedy containing caffeine, which combats the drowsiness with no ill effects. A decongestant such as Sudafed opens up the nose, makes breathing easier, and reduces the amount of drainage from the nose.

The decongestants tend to be a stimulant for many people, and when they take a combination of antihistamine and decongestant, the decongestant helps to counter the sedating characteristic of the antihistamine. If you can successfully use the first-generation antihistamines, they are much, much cheaper than the new second-generation antihistamines.
The second-generation antihistamines such as Allegra and Claritin do not cause drowsiness, but are much more expensive with Allegra requiring a prescription.  Loratdine does not require a prescription, is easily available, and the site suggests it as one of the first things to try when having allergy problems.

The Winter Sun

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Year in Retrospect

As gardeners, each season is met with hopeful enthusiasm, enjoyed in its fleeting passage as we await another garden phase. In winter the above-ground garden rests, however below ground it is busily preparing for the life-spring which will arrive as the days lengthen and the soil awakens. For this reason the winter season requires watering on occasional warm days for despite the sprinkling of snow last Saturday the garden is quite dry; snow simply does not supply the required moisture. Remember to turn off the water before the evening temperature drops; we once forgot and found a horrifying frozen waterfall covering the entire garden the next morning.

In retrospect the past year was most interesting, highlighted by the welcome break in our drought. The blessed rains which arrived in surprising intervals during the course of the entire year helped restore our countryside… native grasses which are usually spent in the dry heat of July, remained a vibrant green until frost. This year wildflowers were able to complete their life cycle, spilling rain-soaked seeds of future flowers on moist ground rather than dust… thus giving the promise of a lovely spring. The trees were washed clean, the streams were filled, and minnows once again appeared in the creeks. It was a restoration… the kind of year we will joyfully recall when more difficult years arrive.

The temperature fluctuations were unusual as well. It was hot/cold, hot/cold… as though Mother Nature was perhaps a bit menopausal. The spring-like conditions occurring weekly until mid-December, fooled many tree who began to prematurely bud only to be jolted into reality by the sudden freeze. With the deep-freeze which arrived last Monday, they will truly become dormant while waiting for spring. And the freeze is exactly what we needed to thoroughly kill many pests who were warmly relaxing in the debris left behind in the garden.

Dreary days may continue for several months, however the gardener may look forward to gardening catalogues which will begin arriving January first. They are porn for gardeners… tattered and dog eared, they are read over and over with longing and lust. As a surprise to yourself, plan on ordering something totally outrageous in the coming year then just enjoy the experience of watching it grow! Happy New Year!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Amazing Amaryllis

The afternoon of the past dreary Sunday was punctuated by the Winter Solstice… that moment in time when the promise of Spring emerges as each day becomes longer. Our question for December may well be “Sun, Sun, where art thou?”

The Queen of all bulbs, the exquisite Amaryllis, is now making an appearance everywhere. She is traditionally a guest at Christmas celebrations, and with good reason for historically speaking she has quite a colorful reputation.

As serious exploration began in the 16th and 17th centuries, botanical specimens were among the most coveted acquisitions brought home to Europe. Consequently even today there remains controversy over exactly who discovered the Amaryllis and from which continent it originated. Botanical debate claimed it was from Africa while other botanists insisted it came from South America. Regardless of origin, this exquisite flower had an immediate cult following and legend arose to explain her deep scarlet color.

As with so many of our flowers, Amaryllis has both Greek and Roman lore attached to her and the poets Theocritus (3rd century BC) and Virgil (70 BC) both wrote she was a shy nymph of great resolve. Amaryllis fell in love with a popular shepherd reputed to be as handsome as Apollo and as strong as Hercules; he was a rock star of the day and unimpressed by her attentions. Hoping to quell her embarrassing adoration, he gave her the impossible task of finding him a flower that never before existed. Amaryllis consulted the Oracle at Delphi and was instructed to walk to his home and pierce her heart with a golden arrow, allowing her blood to flow. For thirty nights she did so and from her spilled blood the flower with crimson petals appeared.

And once again Napoleon’s Josephine made a flower famous by commissioning a painting of one and the English Poet Laureate, Lord Alfred Tennyson, included her in a poem. Our own Thomas Jefferson mentioned an Amaryllis in his diary in 1811... All of which are quite illustrious mentions for a flower!

These precious bulbs, once available to only wealthy elitist, through time and progress are now affordable. Available in a wide array of colors which include not only the traditional scarlet, but white, deep pink, orange, shades of salmon, pink, and rose, Amaryllis makes a welcome guest at every celebration. Rather than forcing your own, perhaps purchase one that has already sprouted and needs a loving home. Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Oklahoma Winters

All of those who garden watch the weather with keen interest and Sunday we experienced the temperature change which makes our state infamous. In the morning the sun shone and the temperature climbed to a semi-balmy sixty plus degrees so we hurried outside to plant the remaining tulip bulbs before bad weather arrived. Early afternoon rushing dark clouds appeared to the north; within them the swirling wind howled furiously. The entire sky became black and the temperature fell thirty degrees in just over an hour. In the garden, we watched in awe before scuttling to the house for hot coffee… the remaining tulips will have to wait.

As the days become shorter the season for interior decorations begins in earnest so plan to wander outside and shop for Nature’s ornaments. Shears in hand, look at the amazing plethora just outside the back door and begin collecting everything from brightly colored leaves to the wide assortment of interesting seeds and grasses.

For a wreath consider Euronymous whose seed is a shell-shaped mini four leaf clover which encases a plump red berry. Bittersweet has tendrils with darling berries prancing along the stems, many varieties of dried grasses have a wispy texture, and lengths of twisted bark will add interest. Using a simple grape vine wreath and florist wire, layer what you have collected and watch as magic ensues. To finish, spray with inexpensive hair spray to ‘set’ the wispies and prevent allergens from flying about.

For the holiday table or breakfront exotic Pyracantha is beyond compare with ripened berries sending hundreds of tiny baby ‘pumpkins‘ dancing along their branches. Allow their branches to creep along and include amber and scarlet leaves, oak casings, candle-lit hollowed mini pumpkins and a sprinkling of battery operated twinkle lights peeking from beneath it all, sparkling here and there.

The most favored Pyracantha is the lovely Firethorn who continues to present a show when most of the garden guests have retired. Tiny white bouquets of flowers appear in early summer and are beloved by the bees. The flowers fade and form the berries which stay green until the evenings begin to cool and their color change begins. Their final gift is the precious bright orange pumpkin-like seeds. The Firethorn holds true to her name, with a bush-like spread and fierce thorns which provide an ideal place for bunnies to scurry and hide for safety. If memory serves me, I believe it was the Pyracantha that thus saved Brer Rabbit from the fox. Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Fall Foliage... the parting gift

The Caddo Maples are the last to begin foliage change their process usually foretells the first freeze will occur within a week. They are unusual in that all of their leaves do not freeze-fall; much of their glorious foliage, although crisp, remains tree-bound until Spring. Just as their color change predicts a coming freeze, these last leaves foretell the arrival of Spring as they are literally tossed from the tree when it is expected to arrive. As the Maples had predicted last week, our first deep freeze roared in early Wednesday morning and suddenly Winter is upon us… in a most vengeful manner.

Trees lose their leaves to give additional sunlight for warmth during the cold winter months and Nature has provided us with a stunning visual as a parting gift. Although the following explanation will be a vast over simplification, it may provide insight into the foliage change. During the spring and summer the trees use their leaves to collect air and water to turn it into food. The process, called photosynthesis means ‘putting together with light’ so as the days shorten and daylight diminishes, the gathering process ends. The leaf is no longer necessary to the tree and begins its transformation providing breathtaking color for a brief moment in time.

The chemicals chlorophyll and carotenoids are present in the leaf cells throughout the growing season with chlorophyll making leaves the bright green color. As daylight decreases in autumn, chlorophyll production stops and the chlorophyll disappears. With the loss of chlorophyll the carotids, which have been there all along, become visible and display lovely yellow leaf color. Lastly the anthocyanins arrive and take center stage, ushering in the vibrant reds we associate with Autumn.

Anthocyanins, which are glucose, are singularly responsible for the brilliant hues of purple, crimson, and scarlet. They are a fickle lot, insisting on warm sunny days and crisp evenings to slow the closing of the leaf veins and trap excess sugar produced at this time… if the weather does not comply to their demand, lackluster reds are produced.

Shade and the foliage show are not all the leaves have to offer… their parting gift is perhaps the most important. As the leaves drift from the trees and collect below they continue to work by slowly decomposing. Over time this process adds nutrients to create a dark rich soil which nourishes the fledgling the saplings as they grow to become forest giants like their parents. Nature is always at work, regardless of the season.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Gophers... Again

This subject has been broached before, however it bears repeating since almost overnight the gophers have become incredibly active. Since they are a problem of fairly vast proportion, a brief description of their physical appearance and habits might be helpful. They are rodents and require strong measures to eliminate and exterminate them.

Gophers live in long, complex tunnels below the ground, digging with their powerful front feet and their sharp teeth. Most of their lives are spent digging and patrolling their tunnels to protect their territory from other gophers. Their tails are hairless and tactile; it is an organ of touch which can “feel” as the gopher backs up in his hole; his home is recognized by the large mound of earth above it. It is said their nest is usually about a foot below ground and lined with leaves, although digging like a mad woman has never revealed anything of the like. Their food choices include favorites such as vegetables, buds, grass, nuts, roots and bulbs; they can totally decimate a lovely garden in very few days. In fact once I watched once as a stalk of Asparagus was slowly pulled cartoon-like below ground, one jerk at a time until it disappeared.

With an understanding of the gopher, methods for extermination must be examined. For the gardener, dropping bits of poison into gopher mounds is ineffective as it seems to be the equivalent of giving them a vitamin tonic… often they will push it to out of their home like an old couch left curb side. The old wives tale about dropping Juicy Fruit gum into a mound to destroy their digestive system is totally false. The ‘bomb’ one may purchase to send carbon monoxide from a lawn mower into holes (in spite of being extremely fun to use) is ineffective as well. Flooding gopher mounds with a hose makes an unsightly mess and often the water will completely destroy a flower bed by imploding the underground burrows, leaving deep crevices in its wake. Waiting for the emerging gopher with a rifle in hand is ultimately a waste of time for it seems they ‘sense’ danger and never appear.

Trapping easiest way to eliminate these pests, however there is a level of training required to properly set it. For the fainthearted, leaving a small battery operated radio near their home works. They find the noise objectionable and will often vacate the premises… set the station to Rap.

*Adding insult to injury… this mound is heart shaped like a macabre Valentine sent to me.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Why We Chose Farm Life

I am glad I was part of the 'Back to Earth' movement even if we didn't know it was a movement. The cities had become so angry by 1975. Watergate, the assassinations of men of peace, the winding down of equal rights, the drugs which made their appearance were dangers that could not be escaped so we simply fled them. Many of us returned to our roots; to the places where our grandparents raised a family amid the simple pleasures of our own youth.

The gift of a small town where the doors are never locked at night, where the car keys need not be removed, where you can call the pharmacist at home to meet you if the children became ill during the night... all this was too important for my family to miss and I'm glad we didn't.
I am so pleased I was able to experience farm life before the disasters of the 1980's and closure of the family farm as a treasured institution. Family farming was over by the time John Cougar Mellencamp wrote the poignant song "The Auctioneer" and Willie Nelson began his battle to save them. Family farms were still on every section of land in 1975 so we became part of a close knit community of neighbors.

I was able to go to quilting bees with little old ladies who had quilted together since they were girls. My stitches are in their quilts and even though the ladies are all gone now, the quilts have been lovingly passed on and I have several to serve my memory. These ladies took me under their wing and I learned short cuts to canning, how to milk a cow, plant a garden and the joy of fresh eggs.

You could drive along a dirt road in June and country ladies would have spontaneously met to pick sand plums at a most favored 'secret' place. We would later attend family our community berry picking party followed by homemade pies, guitar music, tall tales and ageless laughter. I was able to push back time a little and give my children an antique life style that has all but disappeared... I am happy we didn't miss it especially since it has disappeared now.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Amazing Bodark

Each year Autumn presents Osage oranges that have fully ripened to their signature color and thus their common name. It is a member of the Mulberry family and depending upon locale it may be referred to as hedge apple, horse apple, monkey ball, bodark or bois d'arc. In spite of its terrible reputation as invasive it was extremely important in the rise of Native American culture in the United States.

It was first mentioned to an English speaking audience in a letter from Scottish explorer William Dunbar in 1804. Following his description Meriwether Lewis sent cuttings to President Jefferson and the largest existing tree resides on a farm adjacent to Jefferson‘s estate in Virginia. Lewis' letter indicates the trees were donated by a French gentleman Pierre Choteau, who resided in the Osage Nation where the Mississippi and Ouachita Rivers met. The name bois d'arc, or "bow-wood", was given by French settlers who noted the wood was utilized for Native war clubs and bow-making. This wood was prized among Native Americans for bows as it was unusually strong, flexible and durable… tribal members would travel hundreds of miles to find or purchase it from other tribes. In by 1890 a horse and a blanket were the standard price of a bow made of Bodark.

Many historians believe the rise of the advanced Spiroan Mississippi culture was due to the high value this wood had to Native Americans. The now extinct Spiroan tribe controlled the land in which these trees grew and archaeologist have discovered remarkable mounds that revealed the advancement of their society. Between 800 and 1400 the Spiro people created a powerful religious and political center that thrived along the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Spiro (Oklahoma) is considered the western-most outpost of Mississippian culture and the objects discovered there among the most sophisticated pre-Columbian artifacts in all of North America.

Bodark makes remarkable fence posts for its lack of enemies… termites find it distasteful and it is not prone to fungus. Before the invention of barbed wire in the 1880's thousands of miles of ‘fence’ was constructed by planting young Osage Orange trees closely together in a line. Saplings were pruned to promote bushy growth to create a ‘horse high, bull strong and hog tight’ fence row made from Osage Orange and for this purpose it was ideal.

In 1934 Franklin Delano Roosevelt initiated his Great Plains Shelter Belt Program to prevent soil erosion. By 1942 over 30,000 shelterbelts containing 220 million trees that stretched for 18,600 miles had been planted. Bodark must be carefully pruned as each shoot will grow up to six feet a season and for this reason it has become invasive.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Fall Containers

Autumn is a time for a new genre of container planting and there are many plants that not only survive cold temperatures, they thrive on them. Flowering Kale is exceedingly popular today sporting an endless array of interesting ruffled leaf combinations from spires to tight rosettes. Kale is round, dense, and slow growing, with the marvelous attribute of having colors which deepen and intensify as the temperature dips. Kale is a form of cabbage and among the oldest of the cultivated edible greens. It has been a staple for centuries, adding a welcome green leafy vegetable to dinner tables and soup pots for the duration of winter. The flavor of the leaves becomes sweeter when exposed to frost. The most intense color is located at the center of the plant where the outer leaves tend to obstruct it so they need be planted at an angle for their total color to be fully appreciated.

Pansies are such a cheerful, adorable little flower who are always a welcome guest at the garden party. Their color options are positively stunning, their little faces delightful. Originally a common viola growing in fields and hedgerows in England they were cultivated by William Richardson, gardener to Lady Mary Elizabeth Bennett in the early 1800’s. Despite his efforts, their first noted appearance was on the estate of James, Lord Gambier. His gardener, William Thompson, crossed various viola species with a viola tricolor to achieve a round flower of overlapping petals. By chance in the 1830’s he discovered a flower that no longer had narrow nectar guides of dark color on the petals but a broad dark blotch instead. From this pansy came the future ‘flower with a face', which was released to an adoring public in 1839. Her name was ‘Medora‘ and she still exists today.

Adding Mums to a container will make a statement as well. In choosing them, pick the mums that have tight little clusters of blooms… they will slowly open and allow for long-lasting show. To plant, tear off the bottom root growth and you may safely meld and squish all the plants together before watering to make sure all pockets between them have been filled with soil.

A gardening friend of mine, Susan Cohan, created the most lovely container I’ve seen in years. Instead of the usual fall flowers, she chose Hydrangeas to soften the look and she achieved her aim flawlessly. With the green and deep purple leaves of Kale, the petal-sweetness of the Hydrangeas, a host of pastel pansies and one white pumpkin embraced in the center of it all, she created the masterpiece shown in the photo

Photo credit: Susan Cohan

Monday, October 6, 2014

Magnificent Magnolias

The marvelous Magnolia is well suited for our Oklahoma climate and they are seeding now. As with most hard wood trees, their growth is slow and they do not mature and begin to flower until they are at least fifteen years old. Their life span is long with the oldest Magnolia on record 136 years old… Magnolias are as languid as a Southern Summer day and must not be rushed.

Asian species were introduced to the Americas in 1780 where they were carefully cultivated to produce superior flowers with the deepest lemony scent. In spite of their sturdy appearance, the large showy flowers are quite delicate and must be handled without touching the petals to avoid bruising and discoloration which will inevitably occur. For this reason they do not fare well in arrangements but are rather cut with a short stem and ’floated’ as a single specimen in a large shallow bowl or vase. Of interest is the fact Magnolias are pollinated by beetles.

The deep-green leathery leaves, traditionally used in Southern Christmas decorations, may be cut at their peak and preserved with glycerin. Glycerin is an organic emollient that may be absorbed through the stems of the leaves to preserve their freshness. Use one part glycerin to two parts very hot water. Put the glycerin solution in a short plastic wastebasket, cut the magnolia leaves with suitably long stems and pound the bottom of them to open the major artery before submerging the stems in the liquid. The Magnolia leaves will ‘drink’ the glycerin and slowly change from green to a gorgeous chestnut color. It takes about a month for the leaves to absorb the glycerin and when the leaves begin to feel flexible it is time to remove them. They must be hung upside and allowed to dry completely before use and now is a perfect time to do this project for Christmas d├ęcor.

Following flowering the Magnolia produces an interesting ‘pod’ in the form of a large, conical shaped cone with prickles here and there on its surface. As the weeks slowly pass the pod turns a slight shade of pink as the seeds form. Openings form and the shockingly-red shiny seeds appear and are slowly pushed from the pod. Songbirds birds eat these seeds on their migration journey as they are a good source of energy producing fat and protein. The seeds may be collected to plant however the shiny red overcoat must be roughed and removed to assure success. Happy Autumn!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Ragweed Season is Upon Us

With the balmy conditions of late everyone has emerged from summer heat-hibernation and gardening, walking, and hiking are once again pleasurable. However this year there seems to be unprecedented pollen as though the trees and grasses are determined to make up for the former drought years by ensuring their reproductive place on the planet.

Most flowers have heavy pollen, thus the necessity for pollination by bees or birds. The pollen of most trees, shrubs, and grasses is lighter than the pollen of flowers so it may be carried by the wind. Since our winds may go from a gentle breeze to a driving force in seconds this light pollen may travel hundreds of miles.

Over half of all allergy symptoms may be traced to ragweed and this year it is in disproportionate cultivation, appearing everywhere and ranging up to ten feet tall. It is supposedly a member of the aster family, although it is hard to believe such an illustrious family produced such an unlikable child. In the opinion of many ragweed is the most infamous weed on Earth, producing some of the lightest pollen of all plants. A single plant may produce about a billion grains of pollen per season which may remain airborne for days and travel great distances. It has been noted up to 300 miles high and 400 to 500 miles out to sea.

Ragweeds were originally native only to our hemisphere however they were introduced to Europe during World War II, traveling discreetly on the clothing of our soldiers. Since then it has spread rapidly and now Europeans suffer as we do with seasonal allergies. Ragweed is truly a nuisance this time of year as it is the source of itchy eyes, scratchy throats, runny noses, sneezing, headaches, dizziness, and the ensuing confusion that arrives with these symptoms.

It should be noted the ‘Pollen Report’ on the daily news channels is not an exact science, rather it is pitifully antiquated. Particles of pollen are collected in a box on the roof of the Oklahoma Allergy Clinic and counted… that is how the daily information is obtained. It is impossible to imagine how much pollen is traveling about outside the confines of the City, however it is an easy guess that it is considerably more than what is produced in a concrete jungle!

Since it is impossible to avoid pollen, we can simply take an allergy pill, press on, and enjoy this lovely season… Kleenex in hand just in case. And remember to change your pillowcase daily.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Why I litter...

To commemorate the (rather late) protests on Global Warming, I am posting my 'spoof' entitled 'Why I Litter' written in a fit of pique in 2006.

Why I litter
Way back when, before Styrofoam cups, disposable diapers, and bottled water; back when mankind had a glimmer of hope to save the planet, we were encouraged to conserve, recycle, and respect Mother Nature.
*The term Conservative comes from the word conserve, so we considered ourselves conservatives.
Automobiles were built smaller and smaller because it was common knowledge in 1972 that the world would run out of fossil fuel in 2020, which seemed a long time away. The object of buying a car was to pay it off so eventually your use of it was free. Geodesic domes were built as homes. They were round so no corners could trap heat or air so their efficiency rivaled the igloo, after which they were fashioned. Solar panels became the rage, ceiling fans were reintroduced, and both were but minute parts of the Herculean efforts made to conserve… and thus leave the world a better place than we had found it.
I did my part. I never used wasteful paper products, recycled tattered t-shirts as dust rags, even used cloth diapers on my eight children because besides the landfill issues disposable contained formaldehyde… and it would not be allowed to touch their baby skin. When we added rooms to our home, we recycled windows and doors from abandoned houses and when we built our patio, we dug stone from an abandoned quarry. We raised gardens and chickens to help feed ourselves and to teach a proper work ethic to our children. We bought a Jersey and milked our cow, selling the excess to pay for her feed.
We had one land-line telephone, and one antiquated television which only worked sporadically... the knob had long ago vanished so we turned it on with needle nose pliers. I hung the clothes on the line as much to bring the valuable Vitamin D into the home as save electricity. We added blankets to sleep under when it was cold, and used only a sheet when it was hot. The kitchen and washing machine water ran to the orchard so watering it was automatic. We realized that we needed to carefully conserve to save mankind from the devastation of selfishly using everything. It seemed, well…sinful to use it all leaving nothing for those who come after us.
Further, we knew that plants and herbs hidden in the Rain Forest could provide secrets to cure future plagues and we were grateful they were safe in so vast a place they would endure for eons. China and Russia were still sleeping, barely touched by so-called progress, so they remained pristine. We liked that there were Bedouins, East Indians, Aboriginals,Tribes of the Amazon and others who still maintained the culture of their ancestors and we felt a measure of order was provided by this fact. The sight of Buddhist monks raking gravel into intricate patterns or Navajo painters dripping colored sand into magically powdered pictures was inspiring. We even enjoyed an antique term called 'down time'. Down time is when nothing is required of you on an afternoon but cloud watching, taking a nap, or skipping stones while fishing…after you've dug the worms yourself.
Somehow in my absence, in the twenty years from 1975 to 1995 when I was a recluse, the world ran amuck. Maybe it began when men no longer held the door open for women, which happened to me in 1983 when I was nine months pregnant. Or maybe when the computer replaced the hand written sales slip and suddenly two to four full sheets of paper were printed for a $3.00 purchase. Or when casinos slowly filled the scope of land once considered holy, enchanted or spiritual. I'm really not quite sure when it began but it overtook mankind and created a global monstrosity of consumption... the very essence of the planet has been literally sucked dry. The 'new' green technology with all their expensive gadgets that will help save us need not bother… it's really too late now.
I am finally irritated beyond belief that I tried as hard as I could, at great personal inconvenience and sacrifice, to be polite to my fellow human beings and everything else that resides with us here on the planet. It seems I am one of only a handful who has done so; in retrospect I feel like a chump for my efforts.
And so I say Fuck It…
I'll toss my trash as I drive, I'll plug in my cell phone, I'll subscribe to cable and have two TV's running at the same time when no one is in the house. I'll Microwave instead of cook, I'll crank the thermostat up or down at will, make three 12 mile (and useless) trips to town for trivia, take down my clothes line, buy imported food, spray pesticides, fertilize my yard with nitrogen regardless of the water supply… and I'll even buy water regardless of the landfill issues surrounding this latest absurd fad.
I will not be a Conservative anymore… it has become a double-think political oxymoron anyway

Monday, September 22, 2014

Fall Equinox

Fall is Arriving at Last

It is indeed lovely to see the whisper thin winter grasses and tiny seedlings emerging. The leaves are thinning, and soon they will begin to change. A welcome Fall is upon us and these days seem pleasant and restful after the hurried pace of summer. Monday the Fall Equinox quietly arrived. It is one of the four great solar festivals of the year and for a few moments in time, the Earth was balanced equally with both day and night. As the clock tick-tocked the change ensued, and from now until spring each day will bring less light and the darkness will deepen.

For our ancestors who depended upon daylight or candlelight to perform each everyday task, this seasonal change was notable. In days past, when any excuse for a celebration was in order, there were great festivities surrounding this Equinox. In Great Britain the time of the Autumn Equinox was the time of the Feast of Michaelmas, a day to honor the Archangel Michael, the most favored warrior of God. This was a day of feasting, hospitality, forgiveness, and a day for the settling rents and accounts.

In both Greek and Roman mythology the beautiful young daughter of a goddess must reside with the King of the Underworld for this half the year. Her Mother is bereft and the world becomes barren as she mourns her child… when her daughter returns in Spring the land once again comes to verdant life. At this time the ancient Greeks had a Festival dedicated to Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, who had gifted mankind with the art of winemaking. In his honor men of Athens carried vines heavy with grapes as an offering while a Priestess mixed sacred wine with water to be given to the masses from a single cup.

In China Fall Equinox is known as the Moon Festival and celebrates the abundance of the Summer's harvest with moon cake which is filled with lotus, sesame seeds, and dried fruit. In Japan a week of Buddhist services is observed during both the September and March equinoxes. Called Higan, which means ‘other shore’, the September equinox is the time spirits of the dead reach Nirvana and the living visit, clean and decorate their graves in remembrance of them. *Both Fall and Spring Equinox  have been Japanese National Holidays since the Meiji period (1868-1912).

As Fall darkness begins to deepen, our days become cool, and our evenings become sweater-worthy, enjoy these fabulous Fall days… they will pass in but an instant.

*Photo: The change!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Magical Mums


The leaves on the trees are beginning to thin and bright sunlight is flooding the garden again. The tiny self-sown seedlings are emerging and the mornings have become pleasurable. Fall awakens the gardener's soul and we begin to emerge from the lull of late summer as almost overnight the garden becomes a mass of overgrown exuberant final flowers.

It is impossible to escape the lure of the cheerful Chrysanthemum now making her appearance and memories of this extraordinary flower are embedded in the mind of everyone who has ever viewed an autumn garden. They come in many varieties and are best recalled as a staple in your grandmother's perennial beds.

The natural Autumn colors of red, or bronze, golden, and all of the hues between have kept the Mum ever-popular since her introduction in the late 1800’s. They are unfussy, tend to spread freely, and are both hardy and drought tolerant with the added plus of a long life expectancy. Once they become established, they often become wild and leggy by mid-summer and if so they need to be cut back by the Fourth of July to ensure a spectacular show from early September through the month of October.

In Europe the Mum has long been associated with funerals, grave sites, and mourning although I can hardly understand this use for such a cheerful flower. In Asia however the Chrysanthemum is symbolically and decoratively respected and adored with a cult following. For thousands of years the Chinese have celebrated the Double Ninth Festival which occurs on the ninth day of the ninth month and honors longevity. This festival is the final celebration before the rigors of winter sends people to their homes until spring. On this day the Chinese people eat mum cakes, drink mum tea and attend flowering displays of every variety of Chrysanthemum available. This lovely flower is revered in Japan as well where long ago it reached mania status, meaning there was a national obsession with owning, growing, and displaying Mums for status and respect. A person of modest means could advance in society by merely possessing horticultural talents.

The size of the blooms ranges from precious buttons to the large spider or ‘rag-mums’, which are three inches across. As with all popular flowers, hybridization has produced some fantastic varieties, one of which will be perfect for your Fall garden or placed in a charming pot as part a Halloween display. Happy Autumn.

*Photo: Can you see the visitor hiding in my Mums?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Lynx Spider Sequence

I followed my Lynx in the garden for almost a month... from her professional manner of obtaining dinners, to her efforts to build her egg sac, to the birth of her babies and her frantic efforts to build a silken web 'playpen' to corral them. As the little ones grew, she began to lose weight and color. I found her lying on the grass a mere shadow of her former self as the little spidlets began to scamper away in groups of ten to twenty. I'll miss the excitement of checking her daily antics... she was fascinating!


Spidlets Hatched over three days.

The Advent of Fall


The words of Lin Yutang, lovely and poignant, are perfect to reflect upon as summer ends:
 “I like spring, but it is too young. I like summer, but it is too proud. So I like best of all autumn, because its tone is mellower, its colors are richer, and it is tinged with a little sorrow. Its golden richness speaks not of the innocence of spring, not the power of summer, but of the mellowness and kindly wisdom of approaching age. It knows the limitations of life, and it content”.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Repost: The Field Cricket

 The lovely song of the field cricket is heralded this month and its melodic symphony can be heard each evening. Fall is the time for cricket mating and the male, who is the only voice of the cricket, is singing to potential sweethearts. Although the female can not sing, she can hear the song through her ears which are located on her front legs just below her knees.

A shy and reclusive little insect, the cricket rarely makes a public evening appearance until the urgency of mating begins. Following fertilization cricket eggs are deposited in the soil in the autumn soon after the rains begin. They will rest there until time to hatch in the spring; once they are born baby crickets hide during the day. They emerge to eat in the evenings and enjoy grasses, pieces of grain, wool and their favorite snack... book bindings. Apparently the darling cricket will sing, mate, then come inside to eat a good pair of wool pants and a book or two before its life cycle ends.

Photo: An Outdoor Asian Market Selling Cricket Cages

 In China singing crickets are kept as pets in special cages and it is believed they bring a household good fortune... prized specimens fetch amazing prices. In fact the cricket culture in China dates back to the Tang Dynasty from 500 BC to 618 AD. It was during this time the crickets first became respected for their powerful ability to “sing” and a cult formed to capture and cage them. Naturally the obsession escalated and in the Song Dynasty from 960 to 1278 AD the sport “cricket fighting” became popular.

The sport became so popular that China actually produced a Cricket Minister, Jia Shi-Dao who reigned from 1213 to 1275 before being deposed for irresponsibility. Then from 1427 to 1464, a Cricket Emperor, Ming Xuan-Zhong ruled in favor of cricket fighting, making his palace a major tribute to this important insect. Racketeering, gambling, and even suicides were reported over Chinese cricket mania. *This 'mania' was described as a national obsession.

Luckily, the Asian fabric of choice is silk which is unappetizing to crickets for had it been wool the cricket's popularity would have suffered greatly. Years ago I pulled my 'good' white wool, Katherine Hepburn style, very expensive pleated slacks from my closet only to discover one leg was totally destroyed with cricket holes. Now whenever I hear them in the house I track them and gently place them outside to play!  

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Majestic Sunflowers

The majestic Sunflower is a universally popular annual with great historical significance. Domesticated species have been found in South America dating back to 2600 BC with one discovered in our Tennessee Valley dating to 2300 BC. The Incas had selectively bred a magnificent single stemmed Sunflower from the small native wild flowers. With its center head and golden rays of petals it became the symbol of the Sun god in both the Inca and Mayan cultures, holding a sacred status. Their magnificent golden images of Sunflowers, as well as seeds, were among the items pilfered by the Conquistadors and brought home to Spain. By 1580 the Sunflower was a common sight in every Spanish village and from there it spread to Italy, India, Egypt, China, and Russia.

Native Americans grew the Sunflower as a food crop and almost every part of this gem has some practical use. The seeds, which are rich in calcium, are an easily stored snack, and a dye extracted from the petals was used in ceremonial body painting along with the oil. A light and lovely fiber was made from the stalks and the bloom time indicated the dates of the hunting calendar.

By the time it reached Russia, the Sunflower was well recognized as a food source and produced the only oil not banned during Holy Orthodox Lent. In fact, Russia has such a long-held love affair with the Sunflower that it became their national flower. Russia also led the way in hybridization, developing the ‘Russian Mammoth’ that has been popular for over 130 years.

Since hybrid Sunflowers began to dominate, the small open pollinators were almost lost and by the 1950’s most of the varieties cultivated by Native tribes had nearly reached extinction. Mr. Charles Heiser, a dedicated retired botanist, made it his personal mission to save them and the seeds he collected rest in a repository which houses over 2,000 Sunflower varieties from around the world.

And of course we have Vincent van Gogh to thank for the most famous Sunflowers… his love affair with them immortalized their beauty in numerous paintings. Plant some today… the birds will thank you!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Talk Dirty to Me

When the foliage in your garden begins to thin, it is a good time to check out the places where some plants have not done as well as others and smell the soil. Everyone who gardens knows that soil is alive and the well-being of your plants depends on the nutrients in your soil. When the children were little I took them to the river, the creek, the fields, and the woods to feel and smell the differences in the soil. Healthy soil has a rich distinctive aroma; soil devoid of nutrients looses this all-telling “dirt smell” and will need some help to regain any strength.

 The texture of dirt depends upon the mineral content in it. Sand has the largest particles that can be seen, silts are very small and clays are microscopic. To acquaint yourself with the smell of healthy soil, go to a spot in your garden under a tree, dig a trowel full and inhale the will smell alive. It has gathered nutrients from the leaves which have fallen and the grass clippings which have been thrown its way. The decomposition which has ensued over time has created a rich, nurturing soil full of nutrients, which is why the forest floor is always occupied.

Since no amount of processed fertilizer can add to the garden what decomposing vegetation can add, remember to toss grass clippings and fallen leaves into the flower beds. Over the winter with rains and snow, they will meld into the garden, disintegrate, and replenish the soil while you are not noticing.... the garden will thank you.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Devil's Claws Love it Hot

The amazing Devil’s Claw, in spite of its sinister name, is perhaps one of the most adaptable and interesting plants native to the Southwest. As the summer heats to boiling, this wildflower begins to flourish… crawling and creeping, producing a sticky deep green foliage and a sweet smelling little flower. Although yellow is the predominate color of the flowers, some species have tinges of crimson in small streaks. Several species will close quickly if touched and this characteristic results in the instant capture of pollen and produces an array of flower colors. Bees will travel long distances to gather their pollen so it must indeed be sweet.

There is a long and colorful history to this plant, which is an important part of our Southwest Native culture. It has been cultivated for hundreds of years for both its fruit, seeds, and pods. Cooked and eaten as a vegetable, the fresh pods are a valuable source of protein and the dried seeds provided it in winter months.

The woody fiber of the dried seed pod is used in Native basket weaving. Prized for its dark color, often claws gathered for basketry were buried to preserve it. The dried capsules are soaked in water and the long, curved claws are split lengthwise into narrow strips which are tightly coiled around bundles of bear grass leaves to produce dark patterns. Since the black color is not a dye, it will last indefinitely and makes a striking contrast with the lighter leaves.

Of course it has medicinal uses as well. In spite of its bitter taste, a tea made from it has been used for hundreds of years to alleviate arthritis, fever, and conditions involving the gallbladder, pancreas, stomach and kidneys. A salve made from oil of the seeds was used for skin conditions.

The strange nature of the mature seed pods give this plant its name. To assure survival this curious plant devised a seed pod which is known as a hitchhiker. The inner woody seed capsule splits open and produces two intricately curved claws which grasp, easily attaching to the leg of any passing animal. Thus attached, as the animal travels, the forty or so seeds will be gradually released as the pod continues to split. Those in our Southwest are among the largest hitchhiker fruits in the world… I am looking at one on my desk as I write.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Darling, daring Dragonflies

This is indeed the year of the dragonfly! They seem to be everywhere and at all hours of the day. Twenty years ago they appeared in great numbers in late afternoon, gracefully hovering in a suspended dance above the meadow. This year they appear in mass by mid-morning and in a stunning array of brilliant colors. Dragonflies are located worldwide and have more than 5,000 described species, 450 of which reside in North America, with Texas alone home to 225 species. Considerably downsized now, a fossilized dragonfly from 250 million years ago had a wingspan of 28 inches.

Dragonfly adults are lovely and graceful, with a sweet head that turns to look at you quizzically with magical eyes. Often brightly colored they have two pair of long, slender, transparent, and highly veined wings. The wings do not fold but are held permanently outstretched even when at rest. Adult dragonflies are usually found near water with a territory which may range several miles. Many males are intensely protective, defending their domain from other males, which may explain sudden aeronautical chases exhibiting extraordinary maneuverability.

A truly beneficial insect from infancy to maturity, dragonflies eat mosquitoes. The immature dragonfly is called a nymphs (or naiads). Nymphs are entirely aquatic and are found on submerged vegetation and the bottom of ponds and marshes where they capture and eat mosquito larvae. The adults seen above the meadows are capturing adult mosquitoes while in flight.

As with all interesting insects, there are many folk tales surrounding the dragonfly. Perhaps due to their unusual and multifaceted eyes, in Norway and Sweden they were said to be sinister works of the Devil. Conversely the Pueblo tribes have endowed them with significant importance. They are said to represent swiftness and activity and to the Navajo pure water. Dragonflies are a common motif in Zuni pottery, Hopi rock art and they appear on many Pueblo necklaces. In Japan they are a symbol of late summer and early autumn and also represent courage, strength, and happiness. They often appear in art, literature, and on Japanese pottery.

Regardless of their artistic and intrinsic importance the fact they will purge the garden of mosquitoes, which seem to be in large abundance this year, makes them an extremely welcome visitor anytime.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Rose of Sharon and the Korean Connection

Summer is always hot and one of the most lovely trees begins flowering as the temperature climbs. The Rose of Sharon, of the Hibiscus family, is a deciduous shrub or tree who adores the heat while tolerating dry spells very well. It may be left as a shrub or pruned to grow as a single-trunk tree of mid height. Of course it has an intricate historical and political history.

Rose of Sharon, a native of Asia, is the national flower of South Korea… its Korean name, ‘mugunghwa‘, means ‘eternal’. The ancient Silla Kingdom that ruled Korea between 75 BCE and 935 AD adopted it as its symbol as did the Joseon Dynasty, which ruled the country between 1392 and 1910. The ancient Chinese referred to Korea as the “the land of gentlemen where mugunghwa blooms” in reference to the flower. It is of such import that it is and it is often portrayed in paintings, on wall murals, and in Korean architectural features.

Prior to liberation from Japanese rule in 1945, Nam Gung-eok, a Korean gentleman and scholar, sent tens of thousands of the small trees from his home to public places throughout the country so they might be planted in ‘hills of Roses of Sharon’. He hoped for them to symbolize Korean optimism and hope, while making the statement the people refused to be subjugated. Naturally he was arrested and sent to prison in what would later be called the "the mugunghwa incident". Following liberation from Japan, the Korean government adopted the hibiscus as their national flower.

Light or little pruning will allow the Rose of Sharon to stay a bushy shrub, blooming profusely with small flowers. To create a single trunk, it must be pruned in late Winter and the result is fewer, yet larger flowers. Varieties have flowers ranging from white to pinks and lavenders… and each will sport the deep crimson of the petal center.

Red hibiscus is often cited as a medicinal curative to lower blood pressure and cool the body while the flower is used as a seasoning and the tuber eaten as a vegetable. It is joyful in full sun and will do well in average soils. Blooming from now until late Fall, their profuse flowers make this shrub a most attractive addition to the garden.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Drought Tolerant

Drought Tolerant Plants
July and August begin our season of sizzle as the garden dries rapidly with the overhead heat. One must prepare for these inevitable conditions by including an array of sun-loving, drought tolerant perennials… and few plants withstand dry conditions as well as the Sedum genus. With over 300 species available, there is one for every garden setting.
Native to regions in the northern hemisphere Sedums are among the most hardy and durable plants, and will endure where all other plants may perish. They are also called Stonecrop for their habit of living almost anywhere including mounds of stone, piles of gravel, even growing well while tucked into chinks in a rock wall. Their plump fleshy leaves are their secret to survival, storing water for the plant to use during extremely dry spells.

Sedum is not susceptible to pests who are repelled by their stout leaves, however butterflies and bees are abundant about the blooms. Easy to propagate, simply break a leaf or stem from the Mother plant, shove it into a hole the size of an index finger, tamp the soil, lightly water, and a new plant will emerge. ‘Autumn Joy’ (pictured) is among the most popular, blooming profusely from the hottest days of Summer until the first freeze.

Another interesting addition to the drought garden is Sempervivum Tectorum, commonly known as Hen and Chicks, which were first recorded by the Greek botanist Theophraste, during the 4th century BC. Grown under identical conditions as the Sedums, this fascinating little plant is a mat-forming succulent that produces clusters of rosettes. The parent rosettes are the ‘hens’ and the smaller rosettes that spring from them are the ‘chicks‘. Children find the habit of producing ‘chicks’ extremely interesting, making it a wonderful lure to the garden.

Both Sempervivum and Sedum are considered ‘Old World Treasures’ and are associated with mythology. The Romans called them ‘Beard of Jupiter’ and planted them on roofs to guard against lightning… Sempervivum tectorum is taken from the Latin ‘tectum‘ which means ‘roof’. This myth spread throughout Europe to Ireland and in Scandinavian countries both plants were called Thor’s Helper’ where they were believed to drive off demons and guard homes if planted on roofs. According to folk wisdom, one may hang sedum on a wall in midsummer and it may foretell the outcome of affairs of the heart. Both are reputed to have the medicinal benefit of an energy boost however today they are best used as ornamentals. As the heat continues to escalate, these plants are indeed garden treasures!