Floral fireworks

Today I went to the grocery store and stocked up on what we’ll need to celebrate a quiet New Year’s Eve at home with the kids and some of their friends. I got five different kinds of cheese, some olives, crackers, bread, fruit, marzipan (the kids are enthralled by the idea of marzipan, as I always am–why doesn’t it taste as good as it should??), glazed pecans, and some other odds and ends. I have champagne for Doug and me, but not for the kids. It’s weird now that my daughter is 20; she drinks at college, I know, but I still don’t like her to drink at home. It’s awkward; last night one of her friends brought over a bottle of champagne, and Marcy asked if she and her friends could drink it. The thing is, it’s illegal, you know? So I end up a big Scrooge. Oh well.

Anyway, as soon as I got home, it occurred to me that I hadn’t bought any flowers. Yes, they’re an extravagance, but our grocery store actually has a pretty nice, fresh selection nowadays. And to me, a party just isn’t a party without cut flowers. So tomorrow I will brave the crowds at the Giant in order to buy myself a couple of nice bunches of … well, whatever looks nice. I hope they’ll have a special on Gerbera daisies, which look so cheery even in the dead of winter. Don’t the ones above look like they’re exploding to welcome the New Year?

There is no greater extravagance in life than fresh flowers, and surely after the year we’ve been thought, the arrival of a new one is a good enough reason to splurge!

Photo by Paebi licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License.


Burpee’s here!

Sorry, no time to post–it’s here! The new Burpee seed catalog! Burpee is my local seed company–its trial farm, Fordhook, is in the town where I grew up–and even though it no doubt gets its seeds from all over the world, I still have a special fondness for Burpee and try to make it my main source of seed. It’s kind of mainstream, so I do have to rely on other catalogs for stuff that’s more out there. But Burpee always has a good basic selection, good prices, and lots of juicy tomato offerings. Including the one on this year’s cover, “Tie-Dye,” which I must say is not one bit attractive in the photo. Last year’s was a gorgeous stripey thing, like one of these bee-u-tee-ful heirlooms. BUT–do not despair! Burpee always sends me two catalogs, one with a veggie cover and one with a flower cover. I usually only order from the flower cover. (THey’re identical except for that.)

I’ve also used Burpee’s Sure Start plants, annuals that they start for you and ship at proper planting time. The plants have been great, and the few times they weren’t, there was no hassle at all about getting replacements. My Best Gardening Friend Ruth usually doubles up with me on our Burpee order (to save shipping costs), and she’s brazen enough that she gets her money back if her seeds don’t come up. I always figure the failure’s with the gardener there, but not Ruth. She’s much more confident than I am!

So, I’m off now to ponder my choices for the new year, accompanied by a nice glass of merlot. There is no nicer way in the world to spend time than dreaming of springtime and a brand-new garden on a cold winter’s day, if you ask me.

Photo by Kazvorpol licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.


This lovely seductress is a gazania, a South African native that I glimpse each spring on my visits to garden centers and instantly fall in love with, truly and deeply. Gazanias have lovely soft gray-green, ferny foliage. The flowers are a nice size, two to three inches in diameter. And they have THE MOST insane combinations of colors in the flowers–say, light pink striped with bright yellow, with an inner ring of steel blue stippled with crimson. There’s a reason they’re called ‘ga-ZANY-uhs.” They’re the clowns of the flower world, and they wear all their varied hues with great panache. That’s my excuse for not being able to resist buying a couple of six packs of gazanias, spring after spring after spring.

And I always regret it when I do. Gazanias are among those temperamental flowers who only bloom in sunlight. (Others include my great favorite, portulaca.) And while they do look glorious on hot summer days, EVERYTHING in a garden looks glorious on hot summer days. But gazanias get glum when the sun doesn’t shine, and they close up their glamorous petals and present only their dull backsides to the world. I don’t need that kind of attitude in my garden. I want hard workers who shine on no matter what the weather, not choosy divas who can only be bothered to spread their petals under the best possible circumstances. So this year, I really am going to try my best to resist the call of the gazania. Maybe that will teach them to think about evolving toward a more tolerant state.

Photo by Noodle Snacks. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 only as published by the Free Software Foundation.

First seed

As if to celebrate the winter solstice, the first seed catalog came in the mail this year before Christmas, rather than in the time-honored week between Christmas and New Year’s when all the catalogs arrive at once. The company trying to get a jump on the competition was Jung’s, a venerable old seed house from which I’ve ordered in the past. I like it because it’s big and comprehensive and no-nonsense–no promises of 58-pound tomatoes, no dubiously named cultivars. It includes the Latin names of the most of the plants it offers (it’s one of my pet peeves when catalogs don’t), and the company has been family-owned and -operated for 103 years.

I like to glance through the catalogs prior to actually getting down to business in an attempt to quickly discern plant trends for the coming year. Judging by Jung’s, hot items for gardeners this year will include coneflowers (Echinacea x ‘Hot Papaya,’ this

big, bold, shaggy double number, caught my eye), hydrangeas (one called ‘Renhy’ but being sold as ‘Vanilla Strawberry’ is on the cover), zinnias, dahlias, and pumpkins, of all things. There’s a truly bizarre heirloom pumpkin from France, ‘Galeuse D’Eysines’ (pictured above), that looks like a dead brain (or a live brain, really, I suppose), a variety called ‘Red Warty Thing’ (perhaps my all-time favorite name), and the cutest little mini, ‘Batwing Mix’, that’s orange on top and deep green, almost the black-green Eagles football jersey green (go Iggles!) on the bottom. The “Small World of Color Blend” is a sort of Benetton ad of the pumpkin world, with a mix of white, pink, gray, pastel orange, and striped pink-and-blue varieties. But my favorite–and it took me a minute–is the new ‘One Too Many,’ a.k.a., “The pumpkin that looks like a bloodshot eyeball”–and it does! Usually the only pumpkins I grow are those that come up accidentally from the Halloween jack-0′-lantern seeds in the composter, but I may actually have to buy seeds of this puppy. I only wish pumpkin vines could be less of an acreage commitment. They do like to take up room!

Hot Papaya photo courtesy of Visions. Galeuse pumpkin photo by Spedona licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License.

Butterflies in winter

I was so busy putting the Christmas tree up yesterday that I almost didn’t notice one of my cyclamen, blooming shyly in the window against a backdrop of snow. I love these exotic but easy-to-grow plants. All they seem to need is a little bit of sun and a little bit of water, and winter after winter, they produce their unusual heart-shaped, mottled leaves and orchid-like flowers, in shades of white, pink, pinky-red and fuchsia, that hover above the foliage like flocks of butterflies. It’s one plant that so far as I can tell does just as well whether you pick one up at the grocery store or buy it at a good nursery or florist. They’re not even very expensive. What a wonderful gift that first blossom is on a cold, cold day in a world that’s still covered in snow and ice—and a reminder that no matter how I deck my tree out in fancy ornaments and tinsel, it can’t hold a candle to the way nature decorates herself.

Photo by Noodlesnacks licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License.

That’s snow crocus

That was my wife. Bah-dee-bop. Yeah. Okay, I’m a little delirious from all the snow–must be at least a foot out there at the moment, and it’s still coming down—plus fumes from having baked about 15 different kinds of Christmas cookies today. Newest discovery: a recipe from More magazine for chocolate ginger cookies, made with cocoa, chocolate chips and chopped candied ginger. More calls them “cookies for grown-ups,” and so they are—about six different layers of flavor unfolding one after another. Highly recommended! It’s also great because having the oven on for so long keeps the house nice and warm. I haven’t done any shoveling, since I never really see the purpose in shoveling when the stuff is still coming down nonstop–and besides, I think I’ll leave that for the husband, when he and son get home from skiing. I thought they were crazy to go out in a blizzard, and I still do.

But here’s a snow crocus to help us remember that no matter how long and bleak the midwinter may seem, spring always gets to us in the end. So hunker down, boil water for tea (or for hot toddies), get some baking and wrapping done, and thank your lucky stars, as I am, that I don’t have to go anywhere in this mess!

Photo by Simo ubuntu.

Underneath the mistletoe

I like to think of myself as a curious person, the sort who wonders about esoteric things and tries to figure weird stuff out. But as I sat down tonight to write about mistletoe, it struck me like a hammer to the head: What kind of bizarre word is “mistletoe”? How can it be that for 53 years I’ve been singing about mistletoe, and hanging little sprigs of the stuff in my living room, and it never once occurred to me to wonder where that word comes from?

So I looked into it, and alas, I’m still wondering. Turns out nobody’s sure why mistletoe is called mistletoe. My dictionary says it derives from an Old English word for “basil”–“mistel”–plus another word, “tan,” meaning twig. So there you have it: basil twig. Which makes no sense whatsoever. A different theory holds that it derives from a German word for “dung”–“mist”–and “tang,” for “branch,” because mistletoe seeds were spread in the feces of birds flitting between trees. Whatever–neither satisfies me. And mistletoe is just as weird as its name. For one thing, it’s a plant parasite, which is very rare. It grows on host trees—especially oaks, in England, the source of so many of our American holiday customs—and stays evergreen, which our ancestors always considered mysterious and portentous. Mistletoe can cause a condition in its host known as “witch’s broom,” in which a number of shoots spring from a single area of the trunk. When consumed, European mistletoe, Viscum album, causes nausea and diarrhea. Appropriately for a plant of power, it has many legends and stories attached to it. Because it blooms in the dead of midwinter, it was a Druid symbol of immortality and was used to treat infertility. In Christian tradition, mistletoe was once a mighty tree but provided the wood used for the cross, after which it was reduced to a puny vine that can’t live on its own, but relies on its host. I’ve heard that same story about dogwood, though.

Kissing under mistletoe originated in Scandinavia. In Norse myth, the god Baldr’s mother, Frigga, was warned in a dream that her son would die, and as a result made every plant and animal swear to do him no harm. She neglected to include the mistletoe, however, and the jester god Loki tricked another god into killing Baldr with a mistletoe spear—thus introducing winter to the world. The gods eventually brought Baldr back to life (don’t they always), and Frigga declared mistletoe a symbol of love, which is why we still snag kisses beneath it.

But another reason for the plant’s association with fertility and immortality is the resemblance of the berries’ insides to human semen. Honest. I’m not making this up!

Photo by Elie plus licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

A tip of the Turk’s cap

For a number of years, my husband and I took the kids to the wilds of rural West Virginia for a week in summer. The house we rented had a lot to recommend it, including a fly-fishing stream in the front yard and no TV reception. There wasn’t a whole lot to do there except hike, swim in the very cold mountain streams, dig clay out of the hillsides and model it, and look at the stars at night. But I realized recently how fondly the kids remember those lazy vacations; both have said they’d like to go back to that house again.

We did get to see some unusual wildlife. We had a bear beside the road quite near the house that I encountered one night while walking Homer; he, of course, ran like hell for the house when the bear roared at us, with me running as fast as I could (which wasn’t very fast) behind him, shouting “Wait for me!” We saw a peregrine falcon very close up, and lots and lots of deer, which wandered all around the house and drove Homer crazy. Hawks soared overhead regularly–we must have been on a regular flight path–and the pond below the house had bullfrogs that croaked themselves silly every night.

But one of the best parts of visiting another part of the country—for me, anyway; I’m not sure Doug and the kids would agree—is checking out the local flora. In West Virginia, we were very close to the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area, which is similar to Maine in terms of habitat. There were acres and acres of wild blueberries to be picked, and unusual alpine plants I couldn’t identify. Beside our swimming hole each year, a scarlet monarda appeared, always in the same spot, miraculously surviving spring flood and summer drought. Best of all, though, at the foot of the cow pasture between the house and the river was a stand of wild Turk’s cap lilies. I’d never seen them live and in person before, and I would always take the path down to the river that led past them. I never failed to be enchanted by their offhand elegance. Here in this pasture in the middle of nowhere, practically unseen and uncelebrated, these flowers sprang up year after year, showing off for no one more than the cows and the farmer and the hawks and the deer. And every summer when I rediscovered them, I felt enriched and blessed.

Photo by Arks Fortis licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License.

Chaenomeles tea

Yes, yes, it’s a terrible pun there in the header, but that’s what I’m here for. I actually have no idea how one pronounces “chaenomeles,” but I imagine it sounds something like “chamomile.” A little bit, at least. And you can’t make tea out of chaenomeles, also known as flowering quince. But you can make liqueur or marmelade out of the fruits, only after the frost hits them. Before that, they’re so puckery as to be inedible. Odd, isn’t it, that frost causes sweetness? It sure doesn’t in me.

But I run on. The fact is, I’m not much of a shrub person. Oh, I love lilacs as much as—maybe more than—your average garderner. And I do appreciate hydrangeas, especially dried and dressing up my living room in great big billowy bowls. But I don’t fuss over forsythia. I’m not wild about weigela. There is, however, one shrub that I seriously lust after—the flowering quince, a.k.a. chaenomeles. .

There was one in the side yard of the house where I grew up. It was squished between a bridal veil (boring!) and a rose of Sharon (ditto), so it was sort of hard to see—and it wasn’t flamboyant anyway. But when it bloomed, I swooned. My mom would—some years, at least—remember to cut some branches right before they blossomed in early spring and bring them inside, where they put cheap, flashy forsythia and prurient pussy-willow to shame. The blossoms of flowering quince have that glossy, satiny texture I love so much. They glow in the sunlight, in their warm, blushing tones of salmony-orange flamingo-shrimp pink.

I see from the catalogs that there are some new, double versions that are extremely ruffly and pleasing. So if I should choose to plant a chaenomeles, I will have to make the same momentous decision one faces with peonies: Which is better, the gorgeous simplicity of a single blossom, with its heart of golden anthers, or the super-deluxe frilly double version? Oh, that I had a bigger yard!

If you do make liqueur out of your quinces, you’ll be healthy as an ox–the fruits have more vitamin C than lemons.

Photo by Alexander Dunkel licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 License.

Which witch-hazel?

When I was a child, “witch-hazel” was a liquid that came in a clear bottle, like rubbing alcohol. My mother used to dab it on our mosquito bites and bee stings. It burned a little, also like alcohol, but had a strange, half attractive, half off-putting odor to it. It never occurred to me then to wonder what “witch-hazel” was made from. It was medicinal; medicine was like magic, so why not a witches’ potion to soothe my sore skin?

Many years later, when I began to read plant catalogs, I learned there is a shrub, or sometimes small tree, called “witch-hazel” (Latin name: Hamamelus). I don’t believe I’ve ever seen one in the flesh. But I love the Harry Potter-esque name, which, it turns out, comes from the use of the branches as divining rods. I think the idea of magic being associated with the plant also had to arise because witch-hazels start to bloom just as everything else in the garden is dying off–in September and October–and go on blooming sometimes the whole winter through. The flowers, which range in color from pink to orange to yellow, are strange and stringy, but they have a pleasant fragrance, I’m told–or, again, perhaps it just seems miraculous for any flower to be putting out scent in the dead of winter.

The leaves and bark are used to prepare witch-hazel, the astringent Mom used to treat our bites and stings. It’s used in aftershaves and lotions, and because it shrinks blood vessels on contact is also used in hemorrhoid treatments like Preparation H. (Who knew?!) I really need to make a winter visit to one of the local gardens like Winterthur or Longwood this year to see witch-hazel for myself–and smell it, too!

Photo by Keichwa licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 1.0 license.

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