Monday, March 26, 2018

Crocus Produces Exotic Saffron

Spring is in full swing and the lovely spring crocus are peeking above the ground, reminding us that the early arrivals will be punctual. Native to southern Asia, the Netherlands now control much of the market by producing hybrids of amazing breadth and color. Crocus grow from corms and were introduced to the Netherlands from the Holy Roman Emperor's ambassador in the 1560s. A few corms were forwarded to Carolus Clusius at the botanical garden in Leiden and by 1620 new garden varieties had been developed.

Hardy perennials, the plants are found naturally in a wide range of habitats, including woodlands and meadows. However the most fascinating species of all is the Crocus Sativus, which blooms in autumn... saffron, one of the most ancient and celebrated of all spices, is produced from the scarlet stigmas. It takes a mind boggling 75,000 blossoms or 225,000 hand-picked stigmas to make a single pound which explains the expense of this exotic spice... it costs approximately $120 an ounce!

Research yields that Saffron-based pigments have been found in 50,000 year-old depictions of prehistoric beasts in Iraq. Sumerians used wild saffron in remedies and magical potions. Ancient Persians cultivated saffron for personal use or trade and by the 10th century B.C. saffron threads were woven into textiles, offered to divinities, and used in dyes, perfumes, medicines, and body washes. Saffron threads would be scattered across beds and mixed into hot teas as a curative for bouts of melancholy. During his Asian campaigns, Alexander the Great used Persian saffron in his infusions, rice, and baths as a curative for battle wounds. Alexander's troops mimicked the practice and brought saffron-bathing back to Greece.

European cultivation of saffron plummeted following the Roman Empire's fall however the spread of Islamic civilization allowed reintroduction in Spain, France, and Italy. Saffron was widely sought as a curative medicine and during the Black Plague of the 14th century, demand exceeded local availability and much of it had to be imported by ships from southern Mediterranean lands. The theft of one such shipment by noblemen sparked the fourteen-week "Saffron War". The conflict and resulting fear of piracy spurred significant saffron cultivation in Basel, which grew prosperous from saffron alone.

Cultivation and trade then spread to Germany where the price of the spice tempted many growers to add various ingredients such as beets to the mix. These epidemic levels of saffron corruption brought on the Safranschou Code, under which those convicted of altering saffron were fined, imprisoned, and even executed.

Saffron cultivation spread throughout England with the Essex town of Saffron Walden emerging as England's prime saffron growing center. As more popular spices were discovered, saffron production decreased and today only southern France, Italy, Spain, and India have continued significant cultivation.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Parsley is Perfect

Spring arrived Tuesday amid chilly howling winds, which somehow seem typical for Oklahoma. This winter produced the deepest freeze since the winter of 2011, which was long and dreadful.

A marvelous cool weather herb is parsley which is lovely with its clear vibrant green and curled leafy texture. Parsley is mentioned often throughout history, and not only for its culinary and medicinal properties. The early Greeks made crowns of parsley to bestow upon the winners their athletic games and it is used in the Hebrew celebration of Passover as a symbol of spring and rebirth. The notoriously wild Romans wore garlands of parsley on their heads to prevent them from becoming intoxicated… of course it did not, however it did settle their stomach as they continued to drink. It is mentioned as one of the plants in the gardens of Charlemagne and Catherine de Medici.

 In medieval times parsley was surrounded by much superstition due to the germination of the seeds. One belief claimed that the extremely long germination period existed because they traveled to hell and back seven times before sprouting. Naturally superstitious farmers were afraid to grow it especially since one belief stated if it was growing near the house there would be ‘a death within a year’.
Parsley is popular once again as people seek natural means to cure or avoid illnesses… and this herb has a wide range of health benefits ranging from strengthening the immune system to regulating blood pressure.   

It is high in  Beta-carotene which is converted to vitamin A in the body and reduces the risk of diabetes, colon cancer, and atherosclerosis. The vitamin K in parsley helps regulate blood clotting and may be helpful in reducing bone loss and fractures. When eaten with a bit of lemon the combination will kill 97% of bacteria present in the body!

Everyone who has eaten at a restaurant is aware there is always a small sprig of parsley served with the main course. The history of its use as a food decoration began in the late 1800’s when butchers decided the curly green looked good placed on or near meat displays. In the 1970’s as frozen foods became more common in restaurants, parsley was used to make the meals look more appealing and in 1978, the Southern California Restaurant Association issued a statement saying that ‘We must make food attractive. It’s part of the cost of putting an item on the table.’ And thus parsley once again made its way to the American table.

Since parsley can help cleanse the palate, freshen breath, and settle the stomach it is an ideal condiment to consume following a meal. Don’t leave it on the plate… eat it!

*Plant some since butterfly larva love it!

Monday, March 12, 2018

Raging Red Cedars


The drought, high winds, and the pollinating Red Cedars have created a health hazard for practically everyone who ventures outside. Over the years, observation indicates that Cedar pollen continues to increase in potency and if one merely brushes by one, a mist will swirl about the hapless wanderer.
The Cedar is a determined tree, and the product of evolved survival tactics. A Cedar will grow in impossible conditions and each one will selfishly take any and all available water, leaving less aggressive trees to perish. The fact they have adapted so well would be wonderful if they were not so prolific.
This time of year, Cedars produce massive amounts of microscopic pollen which can travel hundreds of miles on the wind. Ranging in color from deep yellow to burnt sienna, this pollen is famous for the effects it has upon the human race, causing much misery as it drifts through the air. The female trees are covered with small blue berries… each one is an infant Cedar tree. The birds find the berries delicious and the baby Cedars are spread through the bodies of the birds. The birds gorge themselves, fly to rest in leafy trees, and drop a Cedar ‘package’ of unprocessed berries to grow at the base of the tree. The aggressive adolescent Cedars surround and literally choke or starve any other species of tree, taking all water and nutrients from the soil for themselves.
In retrospect it is an amazement they were purposefully introduced to Oklahoma as wind breaks to hold the land following the dust bowl… their reputation as invasive had not been established back then. In my research I discovered a helpful site called ‘People Against Cedars’. This web-based Texas group organized to provide the latest information in the battle to control Cedar trees. Their mission statement is ‘to make the public aware of this menace and give them knowledge about the most effective means of reduction. We also encourage the replacement of cedar trees with more beneficial trees like native oak, elm, or other non invasive species’.
Since Cedar pollen is so prolific, it is wise to make efforts to partially protect yourself from allergy based illnesses. Obviously the more time spent outdoors the more problems with allergies so do not invite pollen inside by opening doors and windows for fresh air on pretty days…  there is no fresh air during Cedar season. Wash your hands after playing in the yard, wash your hair before bed, and change your pillowcase daily. If necessary take an antihistamine to relieve allergy symptoms and remember Cedar season does not last forever…. it just seems so.

Photo: The Cedar appears to be dead, but it is just covered with pollen it is planning on tossing to the 4 winds!

Monday, March 5, 2018

Darling Daffodils... Naturalizing Them

Naturalized in a woodland setting... stunning! 

To the delight of gardeners everywhere, Monday brought the unmistakable signs of Spring. The song birds were calling and courting, the current bushes began to swell with tiny blooms, and the Sun was unmistakable as it shone through the windows in an altogether different place making formerly invisible dust shine on every surface.  

The mist Sunday managed to moisten the garden and before the winds could dry it out, the darling daffodils began to swell and bloom. Daffodils are among the first to arrive at the garden party, ushering in the joy of spring with their shiny faces. They have so few requirements that they may be successfully grown by anyone… even novice gardeners and children will be enthralled by their ease. There are early, mid, and late blooming varieties and the colors range from traditional yellow to apricots, pinks, and even whites. Planting some of each will allow for a continuous show all spring.

Daffodil bulbs multiply underground and over time become truly spectacular if left undisturbed. Unlike the tulips which bloom only once, one bulb eventually becomes ten or more so they should to be planted with enough room to spread. A large bag of Daffodils will not break the bank either and for this reason they are perfect candidates for a process called ’naturalizing’.

Naturalizing is a show of blooms that has been left undisturbed until over time the bulbs have evolved into a large and spectacular show. The site chosen may be at the edge of a field or orchard, on a hill, or any random unexpected place a spot of spring beauty will be appreciated. To naturalize with spontaneity, randomly toss the bulbs and plant them where they have landed… children love this unexpected fun and will be eager to help. Or choose to plant in swirling drifts, so the blooms seem to be drifting as a sea of early color… a large display of daffodils is truly show-stopping. 

The area chosen for naturalizing bulbs needs good drainage but since Daffodils bloom before foliage appears, sun light is not a factor and they may be planted under trees. Plant six inches deep and allow for their expansion. Following blooming the foliage must be left for six weeks or so to collect and store energy for blooms the next year. It may be cut or mowed once it has dried and becomes brittle… it is spent and the bulb no longer needs it.

We have planted bulbs in our woods and each year their show is more amazing… and Lake Aluma located in NE Oklahoma City has a show stopping display right now. Since non-residents may drive around the gated addition to view it, try to do so this week.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Saved Seeds... A Gift

A worker sorting and saving seeds at the Vavilov institute
A week ago we thought Spring had arrived then last Thursday Winter reappeared with a vengeance. Sleet and thunder snow, a rare occurrence, was followed by a welcome albeit cold rain, with many receiving over an inch. As the weather warmed over the weekend, the greening of the garden began, sending shivers of delight to the gardener’s heart.

Last week an important announcement for mankind was made very quietly, lost among frivolous news. I have written before about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway and this week it will open so scientists can add 60,000 new seeds to the existing collection of millions. The vault, located at the coldest point on the planet is referred to as the Doomsday Vault. It houses seeds from all parts of the world which contain seed biodiversity that will assure mankind’s survival. Should a man made or natural disaster wipe out existing crops, seeds from the vault may be called upon to begin agriculture once again. Syria is an example as chemical bombing has rendered former agricultural land a barren desert… it will need new seeds at some time.

The concept of a modern seed vault became a reality as warfare during WWII caused famine across Europe. No stranger to famine, Europe had suffered many before, losing thousands of people to starvation. In St. Petersburg, a family of scientists had studied plant genetics and decided that preservation of seeds was paramount, for without them famine was inevitable. A Seed Institute was founded by a man named Nikolai Vavilov and his collection of seeds became the largest in the world.

When German forces began a 900 day bombardment, blocking food and supplies to the city of St. Petersburg (then known as Leningrad) Vavilov was targeted, arrested, and tortured because of his work. The Germans wished to confiscate the contents of the Seed Institute to preserve their ‘scorched earth’ policy which would leave their Russian rivals no way to recover from the war. Refusing to cooperate, Vavilov died in prison of torture and starvation.  

 Following his death, his staff persevered in secret counting, sorting and storing seeds. Even when discovered, arrested, and tortured, all refused to reveal the hidden location of the seed vault. Although they too were starving none of them consumed the seeds in their care. Following the War, when the vault was discovered and opened, the body of one the scientists was found slumped over the bags of rice seed he was guarding… they were safely sealed.

 Nobility is the highest calling and those who value humanity over their own survival deserve honor. Throughout history, gardeners have proven their love of mankind and this story illustrates it beautifully.