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 aroma....it 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.