LATE-SUMMER LETHARGY AND AN ELDERBERRY SHRUB

There’s always something to contend with as a gardener (and as any kind of living creature, I suppose) – bugs, weather, disease, timing, pathogens – but the one that’s been plaguing me lately is my own lethargy.

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I googled lethargy to make sure that was the particular word I wanted and here is a list of its synonyms: sluggishness, inertia, inactivity, inaction, slowness, torpor, torpidity, lifelessness, listlessness, languor, laziness, idleness, indolence, shiftlessness, sloth, apathy, passivity, weariness, tiredness, lassitude, fatigue, inanition, hebetude. That about sums it up. All I’ve want to do is be inside, in the A/C with my dog, lost in a book. Or at the lake. Which is why my blog is weeks behind.

(By the way, I’m completely obsessed with the book I’m currently reading, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. It’s about a post-apocalyptic traveling performance group who roam the area around the Great Lakes twenty years after a flu pandemic has killed 99% of the population. They perform Shakespeare. It’s incredible. I can’t wait to finish it and I never want it to end. It was very deservedly nominated for the National Book Award. I’m in love with it.) More about the flu a little later…

Back to my inanition. It seems silly to blame it on the heat. It gets hot in Arkansas in August. And humid. And deafening. That incessant ratchety acceleration of cicadas makes it seem that much hotter. Pulsing. Electric. Alive. I know this. I accept it. I have been known to relish it. But this summer, it has indeed induced hebetude.

Meanwhile, the tomatoes, peppers, and okra are in their prime and ripening faster than we can keep up with them. Some like it hot.

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There’s a mantra I adopt about this time every year, it goes like this. Next year….

Next year I will stake my sauce tomatoes. Next year I will plant fewer shishito pepper. Next year I may skip zucchini entirely.

In the spirit of staying inside and making use of the bounty that is August, I’ve been in the kitchen.

I pickled radish seed pods.

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If you neglect to harvest your radishes, by choice or dereliction of duties, they will flower and then eventually those flowers become seed pods. They are a delicious treat, like a mild radish in a different form.

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I made salsa verde.

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In an attempt to use up an overlooked zucchini that consequently grew to the size of my forearm, I made zucchini bread.

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Although when all was said and done, it made use of less than half of it.

I spent the better part of two days making and painstakingly documenting homemade ketchup, which was, very disappointingly, an epic fail. I suppose I’ll find a use for it, but you won’t be getting it for Christmas.

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I made chile verde.

I made heirloom tomato sauce. Twice. 

I made a simple and delicious carrot soup (http://www.101cookbooks.com/archives/a-simple-carrot-soup-recipe.html). Do you know this site? Heidi Swanson’s blog 101 Cookbooks is a beautiful, elegant, site with unique, healthy recipes. There is something very soothing about it. All that clean white marble, those sumptuous photos of that virtuous food, very inspiring.

And then I fried okra.

Oh, and… I made an elderberry shrub! Remember elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) from the Hedgerow post? (https://thecultivator.net/?s=hedgerow) Well it bloomed. This is May 21st.

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And by August 8th, we had berries.

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Some of which I managed to get to before the birds did.

The berries are beautiful, glossy purple-black with vibrant magenta stems. As a plant it is a gangly, unruly thing. The eminent horticulturalist Michael Dirr says it is “only suitable for rough areas of the garden.” But it suffuses those rough areas with a rich history of mystery and medicine.IMG_8990

In most of Europe the elder was so closely connected with magic that permission had to be asked for its use of the dryad, Hylde-Moer (or Elder-tree mother) who resided in it. If treated well, the goddess was benevolent, thus elders were often planted around houses for protection. It was also believed that they repelled lightning strikes – one more reason to plant one near your house. The rise of Christianity suppressed nature worship and the elder became the tree of witches, and as the site of Judas’ hanging, an emblem of sorrow. It’s mentioned in several of Shakespeare’s plays. It was also believed to mark the entrance to the Underworld. If you fell asleep under one you might end up there and never return. Good thing I’ve been taking my naps inside.

Medicinally, elders were considered ‘the medicine chest of the country people’. In 1633, a Dr. Blochwich published a comprehensive book titled The Anatomie of Elder that spends 230 pages listing its virtues and uses. And as recently as 1995, it was used to treat a flu epidemic in Peru.

Our North American elder is Sambucus canadensis, while the Europeans have Sambucus nigra. They are very similar in terms of physical properties and how they are used, although ours is more heat tolerant and shrub like, whereas S. nigra can grow into a small tree. They have been used extensively – bark, leaves, flowers, berries, and even a fungus that grows on the tree – since the Romans for ailments from toothaches to the plague. Another North American sambucus, red elder (S. racemosa) is extremely toxic. Incidentally, the bark, stems, leaves, unripe berries, and even the tiny stems on the berries of all sambucus contain cyanide producing glycocides, which can be poisonous, so stick with the flowers themselves and the ripe purple berries, and to be on the safe side, heat both of those as well.

The flowers make an relaxing, restorative tea whose properties change if they are used fresh or dried, hot or cold. Fresh flowers have a mildly laxative effect and can help with constipation, while a tea made with dried flowers is used to drive out fever. This quality, along with its anti-inflammatory traits, a slew of antioxidants, and more Vitamin C than oranges make it a highly effective treatment during cold and flu season, it’s also used for asthma and hay fever.

Or try the flowers lightly battered and fried for a delicate spring fritter.

An infusion of the leaves can be used for a variety of skin ailments including sunburn, and to ward off mosquitoes.

The berries can be used to make jams, jellies, cordials, syrups, or, in my case, a shrub.

A shrub, or drinking vinegar, was the first carbonated soft drink. It originated in 17th century England and was brought to America by the early colonists as a way to preserve the essence of fresh produce. Shrubs fell out of favor when we got home refrigeration, but are having a renaissance in the craft cocktail movement of our moment. Today’s mixologists use them as a novel way to add complexity, acidity, and even nutrition to cocktails, but they’re also great simply mixed with carbonated water as a new old-fashioned soda.

Shrubs at their most basic are fruit, sugar, and vinegar, but the process for combining them can differ. In one method, the fruit is macerated with sugar for several days, then the resulting syrup is strained and mixed with vinegar. Alternately, the fruit can be crushed and mixed with vinegar, this can be strained, and the resulting fruit-infused vinegar can be mixed with sugar. It can be heated or not. You can get creative by experimenting with different vinegars and sweeteners, as well as adding aromatics. Culinate has some great ideas (http://www.culinate.com/articles/features/shrub_love) that I can’t wait to try.

For my first elderberry shrub, I placed one cup of clean berries in a pint jar and mashed them up with a fork.

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Then I added a cup of apple cider vinegar, shook it up and put it in the refrigerator overnight, shaking it a few times for good measure.

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The next day I strained it

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and put the strained liquid in a saucepan with a cup of cane sugar. This would be the time to add aromatics. For my next elderberry shrub I’ll add ginger and some cloves at this point.

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Once the sugar was melted, I let it cool, poured it into a jar, and voila, a cocktail enhancement that can ward off the flu! Elderberry gin and tonics for everyone!

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I’ve also done some work out there trying to get a fall garden planted. The planting is not the hard part, it’s keeping it alive – see above – bugs, weather, timing, pathogens, torpidity…

So far I’ve got arugula, broccoli raab, spinach, collard greens, kale, calypso beans, fennel, and cucumbers coming along. 

I hope you’re all staying cool and collected and if you’re not getting anything done, I hope you’re not beating yourselves up about it.

Thanks for stopping by!

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