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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SPRING WEEDS

It’s such a lovely time of the year. The days are warm and sunny and cooled by breezes perfumed with lilac and wisteria. Everything is in its first flush of green punctuated with the exotic purple pop of redbud blooms and birdsong. It’s not without its drama either. Moments ago we were pummeled with hail.

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Color is everywhere. Lawns are seas of purple and blue with sunny bursts of yellow as everyone puts off that first mow of the season.

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Aesthetically, I appreciate a smooth expanse of cool green grass as much as the next person, it’s easy to look at, soothing in its monochromaticity, and I especially like the way it sets off a garden. But it’s also the time of year when I make sure to keep Wilson on his leash because I don’t know what people in my neighborhood are spraying on theirs–not to mention what’s being flushed into our abundant local waterways. If I had to choose between chemicals and weeds, I’d gladly choose weeds. 

(I should mention that my two neighbors to the left have gorgeous lawns that are serviced by The Organic Lawn Guy (http://www.theorganiclawnguy.comTheir lawns are connected so they are mowed at the same time and it creates this big swath of lush, gorgeous, enviable green. Wilson loves to wallow in it. So it is possible.)

When I first began to realize that what I wanted more than anything was to study gardens and plants and landscapes, I set myself the task of becoming more observant of the natural world around me. It’s something I have actively practiced over the years and while I’m no expert, the effort has without a doubt enhanced my life. In the spring it’s especially rewarding to observe the world as it breaks out of dormancy and comes to vibrant life. Some of the first things out of that gate are the spring weeds. 

What is a weed anyway? The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as “a plant considered undesirable, especially one growing where it is not wanted, as in a garden.” Grass in your lawn is your lawn, grass in your flower bed is a weed. You can hate weeds all you like, but often the first description of where a weed grows is “disturbed soil.” Who do you think disturbed it? We did. Weeds are our familiars. They follow in our wake. And yes, there are horrible, noxious weeds out there. Weeds that poison cattle, choke out native species, and cause huge imbalances in ecosystems, but even those are our doing and our responsibility.

I don’t know about you, but I find a deep comfort in knowing about the things that grow around me, things I’ve planted intentionally and those that just show up. It thrills me to know their names, and knowing them in Latin makes me feel downright erudite. It also makes me feel like I’m taking part in history, sharing knowledge in a line that starts with Linnaeus and connects me to plant lovers and scholars ever since.  I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned what a poor memory I have, but for some reason, plant names stay with me. I recite them to myself when I walk Wilson. Hello Lamium, what ya knowin’? How’s it hanging Cardamine? You’re looking lovely today Veronica. I like the common names too – henbit, dead nettle, bittercress, dandelion. There’s a shared history there too. What I think is surprising and important to know about many spring weeds is that they are not only edible, but nutritious. 

Two of the most familiar spring weeds are in the mint family (Lamiaceae). You can tell this by their square stems.

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That’s henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) on the left and dead nettle (Lamium purpureum) on the right. I know you’ve seen them.

Henbit gets its Latin species name, amplexicaule, from the way its leaves clasp the stem. One of its common names is giraffe head, although it reminds me more of a Victorian jester, with lacy ruffs and a silly plumed hat. It’s a sweet little thing. And nutritious too, high in iron, vitamins, and fiber. You can eat it raw in salads or lightly sauteed. It’s also an important early source of nectar and pollen for bees, who need all the help they can get these days. It gets its common name, henbit because it is favored by chickens.

Dead nettle is its cousin, and it’s one of the first plants I can remember being conscious of as a child. I was sitting with a babysitter in the yard of the house I grew up in, watching a storm roll in. She had taken me out there to watch its approach so I wouldn’t be afraid. I remember the storm on the horizon and being surrounded by those funny purple flowers. I was maybe five or six. Like henbit, dead nettle is also nutritious, and useful for bees, although it’s a bit fuzzy, so perhaps try it in a smoothie. And if you cut yourself while you’re out weeding, bruise up some of its leaves and apply them to your cut, as it has styptic properties. Its flower, like many in the mint family, is a verticillaster, which is a fun botanical word for a false whorl. It flowers from March to October. 

Wild Onion (Allium canadense) is another common lawn weed that is edible. They are a pain to remove from the garden because the leaves often break off leaving the bulb to send up leaves again. And once you harvest them they are a pain to clean because they are so tiny, but they can be used like spring onions, or the leaves can by used like chives. I put some in tabbouleh recently and they were lovely. Strangely, (maybe its the smell) Wilson seems to favor them as conduits for his pee-mail messages, so keep that in mind and wash thoroughly.

Hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) is yet another spring edible. It’s in the mustard family (Brassicaceae). 

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It favors moist places, like this storm drain. Some early butterflies are attracted to their flowers. Like the other members of its family, its seeds are housed in what are called silique, long, thin, capsules. These capsules have a mechanism called explosive dehiscence. The pods explode sending seeds far and wide. Annoying, but super cool.

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If you don’t want them (or other weeds) in your lawn, you would be wise to mow before they set explosive seeds. All that (pre-seed) nutritional goodness can benefit your compost pile too.

But the king of all nutritious lawn weeds has to be the dandelion (Taraxacum officinale).

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A member of the sunflower family (Asteraceae), every part of them is edible and they are ridiculously nutritious. So nutritious in fact that it’s truly ludicrous that they are villified, we should revere them. We should lionize those dandys! Their botanical name can be translated as official remedy of disorders. They are full of Vitamin A and are probably the richest herbal source of Vitamin K, which builds strong bones and is used in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. They have tons of potassium, and are a great source of calcium, manganese, iron, and magnesium. They have more protein per serving than spinach. A French common name pissenlit, or piss-in-bed (quaint, huh?), references their strong diuretic qualities.  Because of those qualities, they are good for your liver and kidneys, and unlike many diuretics they do not cause a loss of potassium, maybe because they are so full of it. They are also good for your blood and for general gastro-intestinal health. In Chinese medicine they are used to treat lung and breast tumors, jaundice and hepatitis, mastitis, abscesses, and urinary tract infections. They help in weight loss. They are good for your skin. The list goes on and on and on. Seriously.

Dandelion greens can be bitter. Maybe it’s because I’m bitter too, but I like bitter greens. If you’re not a fan, it’s recommended to harvest the leaves in early spring before they flower, or in late fall after a frost when they are less so. They can be sautéed or steamed or made into a tea. The flowers can be batter-dipped and fried or added to pancakes. The roots can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute or sautéed in stir fries. The internet abounds with dandelion recipes. I’ll let you know as I try them. 

And what about those perfect spherical seed heads?

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How many wishes have you made with those? Merely as an object, they are so perfect. And so transient. And so efficient. Those airborne seeds can travel up to five miles from where they started.  

As a consequence of being me and living in these times, I have a survivalist streak. When I lived in Hoboken and worked in Manhattan it got pretty worked up. There’s something about dealing with millions of people on a daily basis, on an island no less, that makes you wonder what would happen if? I had nightmares of suit-wearing Wall Streeters and zombie hipsters marauding through smoky streets sparkling with broken glass. It’s one of the many reasons I moved home. I wanted to be in walking distance from fresh water and loved ones. I wanted to grow my own food and harvest rainwater. And I missed green. Desperately. And as much as I love Netflix, and Pinterest, and food blogs, I mostly wish I could spend my days tending vegetables and climbing trees and walking in the woods with my dog foraging for wild food, and my nights reading, writing, cooking, playing music, and making quilts. Essential things. I don’t think I’m alone in this. And while I might not be starting my days with a dead nettle smoothie, I think it’s not just entertaining, but imperative to know that I could.