Monday, April 29, 2013

The Star of Bethlehem

Lush is the word to describe the garden this year for the rains have ushered in a delightful spring! The tender new growth and emerging leaves on the trees resemble emerald diamonds, sparkling with freshness in the dew filled morning sunshine.

The lovely Star of Bethlehem has arrived at the garden party and may be seen peeking out here and there in places she was never invited. This darling flower has a habit of traveling and the tiny bulbs will grow without fuss wherever they choose. The vivid green reed-like foliage appears while it is still winter and falls away just as the clusters of precious flowers begin to appear from the center. Throughout the months of April and May the small white flowers, which dutifully close each evening, will faithfully grow taller each day and will last up to two weeks when cut. The star-like shape of the flower gave it Bibical associations to the star over Bethlehem at the birth of Christ.

These plants are fantastic in both name and function. In the Middle East these flowers have use in the culinary world, for although they are considered toxic to animals, most species are safe for human consumption. The bulbs are frequently dried and ground while the flowers are baked into uniquely-flavored breads.

In the 1930’s the scientist Dr. Edward Bach, an English bacteriologist, believed that dew found on flower petals retained healing properties and practiced using the natural oils produced by the flowers, bark, stems, leaves, and roots of a plant to enhance psychological and physical well-being. He created a Rescue Remedy to treat the stress, anxiety, and panic attacks caused by unforeseen emergencies. It is a combination which contains an equal parts of Rock Rose, Impatients, Clematis, Cherry Plum,  and
Star of Bethlehem, and is still popular today. He believed the Star of Bethlehem alone had the ability to cure shock.

In Victorian times the language of flowers became popular and the Star of Bethlehem was often used in weddings as they were considered a symbol of purity. They were given on romantic occasions symbolizing hope for a new life, or the continuation of happiness and love. In addition to purity and hope, these flowers were thought to be an expression of atonement and reconciliation, and were often given by one asking for the recipient to ‘forgive‘. The Victorians were quite creative with their use of flowers.


Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Magical Morels

The rains have ushered in Morel Season and they are abundant this year! Celebrated among rural folks from Oklahoma to Minnesota the magical, mystical, and utterly delicious morel is more than simply a mushroom; it has a cult following. Why? Perhaps because the season is so short lasting only a few weeks with the first onset of spring; perhaps because conditions of temperature and moisture must be met; perhaps because the palate remembers this delicacy long after the season is over; or perhaps because they have never been successfully produced on a commercial level. Regardless of the reason, the arrival of this edible gem is the cause of many culinary celebrations all across the country. Only the subtle French truffle is more eagerly sought than the morels growing in our own back woods.
The elusive morel is usually found in specific locations, many of which are jealously guarded by experienced hunters and often these locations are passed down from one generation to the next. Morels, originating from spores, are found in clusters among fallen leaves under dying Elms, in abandoned apple orchards, under Sycamore or Ash and near decaying stumps. The morel requires a host, preferably a dead or dying tree, in order to produce. Morels are a genus of the edible cup fungi and the highly porous ascocarps are the prize. It is said that collecting morels in a porous bag helps spread the spores, but this has never been scientifically proven. Morels are a delicacy that commands the hefty price of $20 a pound if they may be found for sale, which is rarely as most morel aficionados prefer to eat their finds rather than sell them.
After a successful hunt, the mushrooms should be soaked in salted water overnight… if one can wait that long. The soaking kills the tiny micro bugs and critters that live on the mushroom. The traditional method of cooking includes patting them dry then rolling them in a mixture of (optional) beaten egg, flour or cornmeal or a combination of both and frying them in butter.
There is no better way to enjoy the arrival of spring than a walk through the woods on a fine day; add the pleasure of searching for morels, an adult version of an Easter egg hunt, and you have a perfect day followed by a perfect meal. Happy Hunting
Photo Credit: Top: Bill Torgerson, Tammy Ellis Coats and Sandy Garrison

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Ants As Empaths

As a child observing nature was my passion and I spent most of my waking hours exploring and playing in the woods. Often I observed, followed my observations with an experiment, and thus I learned of the empathetic nature of ants.
Ants form colonies that range in size from a few dozen individuals living in small natural cavities to highly organized colonies that may occupy large territories and consist of millions of individuals. The colonies are oft described as super organisms as the ants appear to operate with a collective consciousness that appears as they telepathically communicate… they have colonized every place on Earth.
The ant hill itself is fascinating and when one realizes the ants are all ladies, the order is not hard to imagine. It is housekeeping at its finest with the nursery of utmost importance. Their home is an entire social system unto itself with workers, soldiers, and a central Queen, who lays the eggs. If one disturbs an ant hill by poking a stick into the central opening, the activity will immediately commence… initially with panicked running in circles. (I imagine them screaming the ‘sky is falling’). Within moments however, order replaces chaos and Herculean effort to save the eggs begins as individuals carry the tiny white eggs to safety.

When the children were little I noted the trail left by ants that wove in and out of the gardens all the way to the North field, where the large colony existed. To demonstrate the ant’s nature, I intentionally injured one who was traveling along the path carrying a piece of grain. She dropped her package, writhed in pain, rolling out of the line. Immediately a sister noticed her distress, and several others stepped out of line and joined her in attending to their injured comrade. (Since ants have a severe case of OCD, stepping out of line is monumental for them.) The injured ant was gently lifted to her back and our heroine began the arduous task of taking her home.

The colony was almost the distance of a football field from the site of the injury, and in spite of many obstacles placed in her path, she preserved. We placed large rocks, crumpled paper, stick baracades, pieces of tin... numerous objects... and when she encountered them she had to decide how to proceed with her comrade. She continued, often putting her sister down to find a way around our barriers, before returning  pick her up again. She carried her sister home where she was met by others who gently ushered the injured lady to the recesses of the colony.

Is it not amazing that a tiny species has universal compassion for their brethren? Perhaps we might look upon them for inspiration as to how to treat our fellow humans.

Photo Credit: Andrey Pavlov, who has created numerous fantasies using ants. His work is amazing~ 

Monday, April 1, 2013

Rethink Dandelions

A true sign that spring has arrived are the bright yellow dandelions that began blooming in full force last week. We can thank the colonist for bringing the dandelion to the New World. Its name is a French derivative which means ‘lion’s tooth‘, referring to the leaves which have saw-like ‘teeth’. The golden yellow head is a cluster of tiny flowers which appear as one. Its roots have hair like tendrils, each of which is capable of producing a plant and the seeds are fertile without pollination. The dandelion was purposefully imported to the Midwest to encourage survival of honeybees and it is the among the most widely recognized plants, growing worldwide.
The Dandelion has many admirable attributes if one can get beyond the compulsion of having a perfect lawn. In fact the medicinal properties make it a natural garden darling.
Early dandelion greens which appear before most other edibles are a plethora of nutritional benefits. Leaves may be added to salads and have a crisp flavor which resembles chicory or endive and have the ability to ‘cleanse the blood‘. They contain more beta carotene than carrots and are richer in iron and calcium than fresh spinach.
They may be sautéed with other greens and onions as a side dish. Used in Europe, China and among Native American tribes, tea made from the leaves or roots acts as a gentle diuretic and system restorative. Stomach, liver and digestive problems have all been greatly alleviated by drinking dandelion tea, which does not tend to have the side affects of pharmaceutical medications. A tea taken now will cleanse the body of toxins which have built up over the housebound winter and allow an energetic ‘fresh start’ for spring activities.
*My children grumbled but drank the tea each spring.
The cheerful little flowers are sensitive to light so they open with the morning sun and close at dusk. The sweet delicate seed head is a wonder unto itself and has its own urban legend. It is said if one makes a wish while blowing the magical seed head, dispersing all of them with one breath, the wish will be granted.