The cyclamen are coming!

I was watering the sorry-ass houseplants today when I noticed that my cyclamen have put up buds on their slender flower stalks. Hooray! Cyclamen never fail to amaze me. I do absolutely nothing for them. I treat them like, well, dirt. In summer, I more or less forget they’re on the windowsills. And even with all that neglect, they faithfully put out the most beautiful, graceful, elegant blossoms, just in time for the holidays. Maybe that explains why I keep buying new ones at the grocery store, even though I have no more windowsill space anywhere in the entire freaking house.

I did a little celebratory reading up on cyclamen, a.k.a. sowbread, and discovered it was used by the ancient Greeks and Romans to treat menstrual woes. This is the plant that John Gerard cautioned pregnant women in his Herbal not to walk across in the garden, because it induces miscarriages. (He considerately went to the trouble of fencing his bed off.) He also notes that when it’s “beaten” and made into little cakes, it makes a dandy “amorous medicine.” Hmm.

Mostly, I like to look at these pretty dancing ladies. But it occurred to me that I’d never seen a picture of them growing wild–nor did I have any idea where they grow wild. I’d only ever seen them sitting in pots. So I did a little googling, and here’s a photo of cyclamen growing in Israel. Must be a breathtaking sight in person!

Photo by MathKnight and Zachi Evenor licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


Concord season

For Proust, it was madeleines. A single whiff of the small, delicate French cakes evoked the flood of memory in him that became his lifework, Remembrance of Things Past. For me, it’s Concord grapes. Every autumn when they appear (briefly) in the supermarket, I grab for a plastic clamshell full, hold it to my nose, and inhale: summertime, childhood, freedom, it’s all there in the sweet, foxy scent.

When I was growing up, one of our neighbors had a Concord grape arbor in the backyard. I can remember hiding among its sunlit leaves when we played hide-and-seek, back in those days when kids played outside in throngs, whole neighborhoods-full caught up in some vast spread-out game, like sardines or hide-and-seek or kick-the-can. The summer heat, the excitement of hiding, the fear of being caught—or being stung by the fat, drunk bees that swooped around the arbor—all combined to sear those memories into my mind. And they all come rushing back when I smell Concord grapes.

I never actually buy them. I just cravenly smell them, probably freaking out my fellow shoppers before moving on. You can’t go home again, I know. I can remember how those grapes taste, the sweet, soft, gelatinous pulp slipping out of the taut skin, the crunch of the seeds we would chew right through while we sat hidden, and waited. I know they won’t taste that way to me ever again, at any price.

A prickly Thanksgiving

My mother-in-law sent an absolutely gorgeous arrangement/centerpiece for Thanksgiving. It’s mostly chrysanthemums (yeah, I know, but these include THE MOST spectacular, huge chrysanthemums I’ve ever seen, deep burgundy with golden centers. The things must be eight inches across! Besides, she’s aware of how I feel about mums and said apologetically that the florist said it was impossible to get an arrangement this time of year that doesn’t include mums. So, there), some deep burgundy carnations, some rhododendron leaves turned upside down so you see the furry brown side instead of the smooth green side, and some Eryngium bourgati, which is a species of what’s colloquially called “sea holly” even though it has nothing to do with holly and doesn’t grow near the sea. I love love love me some eryngium! I’m going to have to try to grow these babies one of these days. They’re this tall, ultra-prickly plant with silvery foliage and thistle-y flowers like the ones above. They’re blue!

And they have an interesting backstory as well. They’re a perennial, you can eat the roots, leaves and young shoots (which are sometimes substituted for asparagus), and a different variety, Eryngium foetidum, goes by the common name of culantro and is used as a culinary herb in the Caribbean, Mexico and Asia. It apparently tastes just like cilantro, but is stronger, which would be a problem for me since I don’t really like cilantro. Foetidum is also called Eryngium antihystericum (I’m not making this stuff up!), and has been used for, like, ever to treat epilepsy. Some common names include fitweed (because it prevents fits!) and spiritweed (because it calms the spirit).

Plants are an excellent example of how anything is interesting the more you learn about it!

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

My pink pumpkin

I was at a local garden center just before Halloween and I saw this terrific pumpkin. It was pink in color, about 15 inches in diameter, and it was covered with bizarre brown growths. It was actually the same pink that’s an accent color in my living room. So I bought it, for all of $6.99, and put it atop my mahogany drum table (with a glass plate beneath it, just in case it rotted), and enjoyed it right through Halloween. In fact, I’ve grown so fond of it that I’m leaving it there for Thanksgiving (checking every now and then to be sure it isn’t rotting away).

I didn’t think anything more about this until I brought my daughter home from college the other day. “That pumpkin is totally gross,” she said when she saw it, making a face.

“Don’t you think it’s cool?” I asked.

“I think it’s totally disgusting. It looks like it’s covered with pimples. Or fingers. Or warts. Or cancer.”

“I think it’s disgusting, too,” said my son, whose computer desk is only inches away from the drum table. “I wish you’d get rid of it.”

“But it’s the same color pink as the sofa and the throw pillows,” I pointed out.

“Who buys a pink pumpkin?” my daughter demanded. “A pink pumpkin with cancer?”

The hell with the both of them. I like it. I’m leaving it there. As it turns out, my pink pumpkin’s French, and very chic. Its real name is ‘Brode Galoux d’Eysines,’ which means “Embroidered with warts from d’Eysines,” which is a city in France.

My kids need to get more sophisticated. Sheesh.

Photo courtesy of

One final flush of fall

I know it’s not gonna last forever, but I can’t remember ever enjoying my garden this much this late into autumn. There are new flowers blooming every time I go outside! The calendula really are the most fun; they’re bright orange and yellow and red, and the plants are nestled close down to the ground, so that the blossoms seem to be clinging for warmth. But I also have two late-blooming lobelias in pots—one lavender, one blue—a whole bunch of chrysanthemums, a white petunia and the “Picasso” petunia, and two different bidens that are blooming their heads off! If the frost keeps holding off, I have high hopes that my favorite Proven Winners “Superbena” verbena, ‘Royal Chambray,’ may yet yield more flowers.

What’s even odder is that my ‘Slightly Strawberry’ Anisodontea hybrid, pictured above, which was a complete and total waste all summer, has suddenly taken it into its head to start doing something, specifically put out some flowers. Well, now that I look at the instructions, they do say “High night temperatures can affect flowering; best with cool nights.” I’m not sure I have room in my plots for a plant that only puts on a show in November, but it sure is fun going outside these days!

Photo courtesy of Proven Winners®,

An exotic visitor

I was fumbling around in the kitchen this afternoon, paging through Time magazine while I waited for the coffeepot to finish dripping, when I happened to glance out at the bird feeder and saw that I had an extremely exotic visitor who looked just like the photo above. I called to my son: “Hey, we have a redheaded woodpecker on the bird feeder!” Good son that he is, he indulged me and came in from the living room to see. “I thought woodpeckers pecked wood to get their food,” I said as I watched this woodpecker pecking instead at sunflower seeds. “I guess he’s feeling peckish,” said my son, which made me very glad I have a son who knows what peckish means.

When I went to the computer to post about our visitor, I discovered instantly, upon looking at photos of redheaded woodpeckers, that that wasn’t what our birdie friend had been. Even though his head was red. Only the back of his head was red, though, and clearly, in the photos of RHW’s, the red makes a complete hood, front and back, reaching down to the shoulders. So … what WAS our mysterious guest? Turns out he (or she; I’m not that ornithology-ish) is a red-bellied woodpecker, even though it’s his head and not his belly that’s red. He’s not endangered or even all that rare, but he is, apparently, noisy. Click here to hear what he sounds like!

Birding is so confusing. I’ll stick to flowers, thanks.

Photo by Ken Thomas.

Bamboo you, too

I’m a three-timer when it comes to those fun decorative bamboo plants you see for sale at the grocery store and Walmart. Sometimes they’re in little dioramas with miniature Japanese bridges and statues; sometimes they’re braided together or forced into fancy shapes or piled into tiers; sometimes they have signs or tags explaining that they’re good-luck plants. They haven’t been for me. My son talked me into buying one years ago, one of the braided kind. The problem with those pretty Asian-style pots these things tend to come in is that they’re small and don’t hold much soil. I managed to kill my first bamboo plant within a year.

It was a few years later that one of my daughter’s boyfriends presented me with another lucky bamboo plant. I guess it really was lucky, because they broke up. Kidding! He was a very nice boy and he was very good about bringing me, as well as my daughter, flowers on occasions like Valentine’s. In fact, he was better than my husband about that! He wasn’t really suitable long-term material for my daughter, but I did like the presents. 🙂  Anyway, that bamboo plant was in a fancy mirrored planter and had a little statue and all, but it didn’t live long, either. Very puzzling to me. I’m not really the sort who fusses over houseplants, but how hard can growing bamboo be?

So now I’m on my third bamboo plant. It’s actually just a single stalk, that came as filler in an arrangement of flowers (from my husband, who doesn’t always forget!). I stuck it in a glass vase and filled the vase about one-third full of water, and there the thing stays. It’s flourishing. I put a tad more water in every once in a while, and that’s it. So from now on, if I’m ever tempted to buy bamboo again, I’m going to skip the ornate containers and packaging and just stick the damned things in water. I’m very fond of my aquatic bamboo plant!

Leaf me alone!

One of the women at work today decided that the table where some of us meet to eat lunch and read newspapers needed “cheering up.” So she took some vases, put water in them, pulled some leaves off one of the borderline-dead houseplants in a corner, stuck the leaves in the vases, and set them on the table as “decor.”

This struck me as truly bizarre.

First of all, we usually have half a dozen or so people sitting there to eat lunch and read. There are always newspapers and magazines strewn all over the place, and much handing back and forth of sections, not to mention cheese and crackers. For now, the table’s pristine except for these vases of leaves. But it’s only a matter of time before the damned things are getting in everybody’s way, are getting knocked over, and are generally being a pain in the ass. Besides which, the leaves don’t look attractive. They look sad-ass. A single leaf of bleached-out spathyphyllum in a dusty vase of water isn’t chic; it’s dumb.

I appreciate her desire to brighten up the workplace. I won’t say I haven’t contemplated bringing my sad-sack houseplants into the office the way my neighbor and dog-walking buddy Marcia does. (Hi, Marcia! Long time no see!) But the lunch table is not the spot for water-filled booby traps. These leaves must go!

The last garden stragglers

My zinnias went down for good over the weekend. On Friday morning I strolled through the garden and planned to cut another bouquet on Saturday; by the time I got outside on Saturday, a thorough brownout had occurred. I felt the usual wash of sadness at the fun being over for another year—sadness somewhat assuaged by the fact that the day warmed up nicely and I got to plant the very last of my spring bulbs.

Now when I go out to fill the birdfeeder each morning, there’s  nothing to admire, nothing to see. Well, that’s actually not quite true. A number of my pot daisies, also known as caledula, self-seeded over the summer, and their tough, wiry flowers are still continuing to bloom. Also still gracing me with its presence is a crazy Bidens ferulifolia ‘Goldilocks Rocks,” a.k.a. beggarticks, that came from Proven Winners in the spring. The plant info says it grows 10 to 14 inches tall, but it only reached about four inches tall for me. (I’m going to guess and say the heat wiped it out, maybe?) So it didn’t make much of an impression in the garden when everything else was blooming. But now that frost has wiped out its neighbors, there it sits, a sprawling little plant with finely cut ferny foliage, dotted here and there with small daisies of the clearest, most cheerful yellow imaginable. I actually double-checked to make sure it wasn’t a perennial, it looks so good. Alas, it’s not. Sooner or later, some serious frost is going to knock my bidens’s socks off. But I’m so happy to have it, for however long it lasts!

Photo by 4028mdk09.

The virtues of flowers

Many years ago, in a used bookstore in Philadelphia, I bought a volume with the impressive title “The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes Gathered by John Gerarde of London Master in Chirurgerie,” that last word being an old-fashioned way of spelling “surgery.” It was a reprint from the 1960s of a book that John Gerard (last name misspelled on the cover of his own book; how annoying!) published in  1597. Written in quaint Elizabethan prose, it’s an absolute delight, full of plant lore and sketches and wonderful olden-days names for plants: “Go-to-Bed-at-Noon,” “Herb Impious,” “Ginny-Hen Flower,” “The Marvell of the World.” It’s sometimes hard to figure out what plant a particular section is devoted to, but you can, if you stick with it. “Marvell of the World,” for instance, is what we call Four O’Clocks, which display so much variation in color on flowers from the same plant: “For if the floures be gathered and reserved in severall papers, and compared with those floures that will spring and flourish the next day, you shall easily perceive that one is not like another in colour, though you shall compare one hundred which floure one day, and another hundred which you gather the next day. … ” Gerard’s descriptions are full of wonder at the plants then pouring into England from the New World, of which Four O’Clocks were one. There are descriptions of vegetables, too, including “Apples of Love,” which we know as tomatoes. Of these, Gerard has to say: “In Spaine and those hot Regions they use to eate the Apples prepared and boiled with pepper, salt, and oyle: but they yeeld very little nourishment to the body, and the same naught and corrupt.”

What’s most interesting about the book to me is the power Gerard assigns to plants. Nowadays, we occasionally remember that poppies yield opium, or that aspirin first came from will0w-bark. But in the pre-CVS-on-every-corner days, people made their medicines from what they had around them, and they took the power of plants very seriously. There are plants that Gerard cautions women from even stepping over or near in the garden, since, he says, they can induce miscarriage. Other plants have the power to make you well, or make you mad. Gerard gives many recipes for making “physicks” from plants; St. James his Wort, a.k.a. ragweed, is, he writes, “commended, and not without cause, to help old aches and paines in the armes, hips and legs, boiled in hogs grease to the forme of an ointment”; the juice of bittersweet is “good for those that have fallen from high places, and have been thereby bruised, or dry-beaten.” This advice is a reminder both of how willing our forebears were to try just about anything to alleviate their physical miseries, and of how much knowledge we willfully cast off when modern medicine triumphed over folk healing. I would very much like someday to try Gerard’s recipe for “conserve made of the floures of the Clove Gillofloure and sugar,” which, he says, “is exceedingly cordiall, and wonderfully above measure doth comfort the heart, being eaten now and then.”

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