Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Passionate Bee

In the waning days of the year, I return to fulfill a promise made in one of my earlier posts, http://a-gitate.blogspot.com/2008/09/why-gitate-and-in-city-no-less.html - to the story of how a flower, albeit not your common everyday garden-variety flower, beguiled a bee to the very end.

The blue passion flower, Passiflora caerulea, self-seeds generously in my Brooklyn garden. From July through first frost, seedlings sprout spontaneously. I do not complain, reveling as I do in the beauty, fragrance and profusion of blooms. I must confess that I have on occasion, weeded out numerous superfluous growths, their long taproots do not lend to transplanting ease.

But the bees. The bees - they love the passion flower. Yes, yes - what's not to love? One asks.

One, one bee - our passionate bee - has had his love story immortalized in a triad of memorable photographic images.

Do not be sad, dear reader, for the passionate bee and his lovely flower mate will return next summer. I promise.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Winter in the Garden

It is sere in the winter light: the hop clings to the vine, the feathers and pods of the autumn clematis catch in the wind. And so winter comes to the garden.

The heart can't help but stir and a garden writer succumbs to the wax of flowered poetics.

There is a light in the winter garden that is like none other. The needles of the amsonia glow along the garden path; amber light hits the witch hazel leaf curl.

And below the surface of the garden pond, fish roam in silent slo-mo...

(But those fallen leaves need to be fished out of the pond, they cannot be allowed to decompose into the water, which can cause a build-up of gases harmful to the tiny pond's fish and turtle.) So, every once in a while there is still some work to be done in the winter garden.

But mostly one sits or stands back and catches one's breath.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Nature in Culture - Part 2: The Flowers and The Foliage

Still looking at architecture at The Cloisters, one finds, among many others, another Medieval interpretation of one of nature's most basic forms: the stylized forms of flowers mostly compositae in format: flower petals radiating from a central flat disk. This is the flower we all drew as children when asked to draw a flower. In yet another capital to a column, this one located in The Cloisters' Pontaut Chapter House, we see a column with this unusual capital.

The classical Greek orders don't generally feature flower forms. The primary form of the graceful capital in Corinthian Order derives from the acanthus leaf. (See my post on this subject from Sept. 21, 2008.) The Middle Ages witnessed an influx of garden and nature motifs in paintings, woven tapestries, and artifacts from jewelry to architectural ornamentation.

Water lilies (picture on right,) and lotuses in ponds, coneflowers, tibouchinas (see below,) and sunflowers are only a few examples of the compositaes that are the basis of the five or six petaled images so dominant in our collective consciousness when we think of flowers.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Nature in Culture - Part 1: The Grapes

(above photo, obtained, uncredited from the internet)

Frank Lloyd Wright - not an impartial observer - called Architecture the "Mother Art." But then, we are all aware that artists have always looked to forms in nature for inspiration. And in architecture, one might riff off Wright and say that nature is Mother's milk.

Any skeptic's doubt can be countered with an injunction to look at this capital on one of the double columns surrounding an enclosed garden at The Cloisters, the museum in northern Manhattan which houses a large portion of the Metropolitan Museum's Medieval Art collections. The building that comprises The Cloisters incorporates the Museum's collection of architectural fragments from five distinct medieval French cloisters. Three gardens designed around these medieval colonnades hew closely to horticultural principles and concepts gleaned from literary and art historical treatises from the Middle Ages.

One need not be a literalist. But it is hard to resist posting an illustration via this dramatic darkling shot of Vitis coignetiae, the ornamental grape vine, otherwise known as the Glory Bower vine.

Or the sun-drenched fruits in the lead-in photograph of grapes above.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Recipe for Persimmon Scones, or "Jumbles"

One may not know it, but now is the season for persimmons, Diospyros kaki "Hachiya," so gorgeously pictured above, with leaves a dark glossy green, thick and large, making for stunning contrast to the bright orange fruit as it ripens. There is an American Persimmon tree, Diospyros virginiana, as well, native to eastern United States north and south. So, really, they are not quite as exotic as they may sound.

Persimmons may be eaten fresh off the tree, especially if you happen to be lucky and grow the non-astringent "chocolate" type. Otherwise, it would be wise to let the fruit ripen, preferably on the tree, not to be picked till it's on the verge of frostbite, especially if you have the native D. virginiana, or D. texana.

If you've ever eaten a persimmon picked at the wrong time, or not properly ripened, and experienced intense mouth puckering, let me plead with you not to give up yet on this beautiful fruit. Blame the tannin. This is the substance which underlies the ones that are classified as astringent.

But really, think about making persimmon scones, or better yet, call them jumbles - this more readily connotes fun and games. Apparently it is quite a southern delicacy. And do use the oblong asian Hachiya variety (as opposed to the round and squat asian Fuyu ones,) if you can. They're available from greengrocers this time of the year - and now you know what they look like. One does not need to plant a tree, the tree is the bonus.

One does need two really, really ripe persimmons - so ripe they are exceedingly soft, the skin practically translucent. Wash the fruits, keeping the skin on, discarding the stems. Cut up and puree persimmons in a food processor or blender until smooth, you should get about 2 cups of pulp.

Note: If you're lazy, or bereft of kitchen electricals, you can buy persimmon pulp already sweetened, and so skip adding the cup of sugar too. I'm sure Google can tell you where to buy online. This paragraph is written as a concession to civility; I hasten to remind all that we're on a gardening blog. It is enough that I let you buy the fruits from a store.

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Use 2 large cookie sheets, buttered or lined with parchment or those new silicone liners.

Sift 3 cups of unbleached flour, 1 tsp. baking soda, 1/2 tsp. each of ground cinnamon and allspice, 1/8 tsp. of nutmeg, and 1/4 tsp. salt together.

In a larger bowl, with an electric mixer, beat 8 tbsp (1 stick) unsalted butter and 1 cup sugar until light and frothy about 2 minutes. Beat in 1 large egg. Fold in the 2 cups persimmon pulp. Stir in the flour mixture, making a soft dough. Finally, mix in 1 cup chopped walnuts and 1 cup currants. You can also use dried cranberries instead of currants. I did.

If you prefer cookies to scones, use one cup less, each, of flour and mashed persimmon.

Drop a scant tablespoon of dough, each about 1-2 inches apart on cookie sheet. Bake 12 to 15 minutes, or until lightly brown. You should get about 24 -30 smallish tidbits.

I won't tell you that you'll have to take the jumbles out of the oven, let them cool by whatever method you prefer, and either eat them yourself, or share them with others - whatever you deem fit.

I think you'll like them.

Monday, November 10, 2008


No, I'm not name calling, I only want to post the photo of a lotus pod taken this fall at the Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania. But it makes for a good title, doesn't it?

Though, on second thought, why not? Why not write about the lotophagi, the original lotus-eaters of classical mythology - the island folk from whom Odysseus has to drag his men away, because his men have eaten of the lotus "fruit," so delicious a fruit that all who partake of it forget the past and wish to remain in the neverland of a drug-induced dreamworld.

And then there is Episode 5 in Ulysses, "Lotus Eaters." In James Joyce's riff on Homer's Odyssey, Leopold Bloom's latter-day Odysseus daydreams life as a lotus-eater in the distant exotic Orient:

...lobbing around in the sun, in dolce far niente. Not doing a hand's turn all day. Sleep six months out of twelve. Too hot to quarrel. Influence of the climate. Lethargy. Flowers of idleness. The air feeds most. Azotes. Hothouse in Botanic gardens. Sensitive plants. Waterlilies. Petals too tired to. Sleeping sickness in the air. Walk on roseleaves...

It has been speculated that Homer's lotus fruits may have been some kind of jujube, Ziziphus lotus. It is reputedly not Nelumbo sp., the plant which produces the pod of a water lotus shown in our photograph - a plant venerated throughout the ancient Far to Middle East. Every part of the water lotus is edible. In those cultures, the brown pupilled dilated-looking white eyes in our lotus pod are a common and versatile edible bean, and can be eaten fresh, dried or popped; alternately, they can be milled or ground into flour or paste. No reports of hallucinatory nor of unwarranted descents into oblivion have surfaced.

But I'd like to think that we can still aspire to being contemporary lotus-eaters if the spirit should ever seize us someday, anyday... (Jujubes seem to be harder to come by, but that may have to be a topic for another day.)

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Eat Your Rose Hips

By now most of the roses are gone, but not rose hips. Everybody loves roses for the beauty of their form. And we know we can capture their fragrance for perfumes and cosmetics, or by drying their petals for potpourri, and maybe even steep them in water for rosewater. However, it bears remembering that roses, and in particular their fruit, which are called hips, are a delicious and nutritious source of food.

Yes, Food!

Rosehips are full of vitamins and minerals. Vitamin C, especially. The best varieties of roses for hips are the wild roses - Rosa rugosa, R. moyesii, and the alpine rose R. pendulina. If you're looking for a named variety, opt for R. 'Frau Dagmar Hastrupp', it will yield hips in abundance.

Here are only a few of the myriad ways we can bring rose hips into the kitchen:
  • They can be chopped up and dried to make tea. To intensify the flavor, you may want to leave the dried rosehips in water, say 2-3 tablespoons to a cup of water, and boil for about 10 minutes.
  • And how about some booze? One can make a lovely rose hip liqueur by cutting, say, a pound of well-washed rosehips in half, taking care to cut off the calyx (the little "crown") and removing the hairs if you're using the hairy kind of rosehips. Put the hips, trimmed and cut, into a nice wine bottle. Add about 5 ounces of sugar and then pour a bottle of vodka or any such light clear spirit over everything. Seal the wine bottle, keep in the fridge at least a couple of months, et voila! Be sure to strain your newly-brewed liqueur before you imbibe.
  • But the best of all, I think, may be rosehip jam, arguably better than marmalade (and reputedly higher in Vitamin C content) on freshly homemade bread, toasted or untoasted. So, to wit: prepare the hips as described in the previous section for the liqueur - i.e., wash, cut, trim. Boil in a pot in just enough water to cover the hips, for about 20 minutes; then puree the softened hips. When the mixture is cooled, mix with sugar, return to stovetop, bringing to boil and then simmer for up to 5 minutes. The proportion of hips to sugar is two to one - that is, if you have 2 cups of rosehips, you use one cup of sugar. Naturally one can adjust proportions for taste.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Green, or Sod Roofs

I attended a class for Leadership in Energy Efficient Design (LEED) this past week. One of the most important things I learned was that installing a "green roof" would be an extremely effective means of insulating one's house, thereby keeping energy costs down and contributing to the overall and long-term sustainability of the planet.

Sod roofs are age-old means for roof coverings in vernacular architecture. These days they may be called vegetated or vegetative coverings for roofs, or simply, green roofs. In the last year, New York State and more specifically, New York City, has initiated tax credits for homeowners who take the plunge to become pioneers in this new movement.

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden, as always, has installed a concise and extremely helpful exhibition, giving us basic information about the kinds of plants that work well on such a roof. However, do not rush out to cart soil up to dump on the roofs of your houses. The internet is abuzz with all sorts of articles and contractors who are anxious to put one up for you. Study the information. Suffice it to say that the trick to the whole deal is DRAINAGE, or water run-off.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Angel's Trumpet, or Brugmansia

Before summer completely deserts us, let me show some of the late clarions of the season. Brugmansias, or Angel's Trumpets are gorgeous tender perennials that will not bear the Northeast's cold. A number of years ago, I received three cuttings (4" sticks which I rooted) from a good friend who goes painting at a friend's house in Maine, and who traded one of her best paintings with the former New York Times garden advice columnist, her friend's neighbor, for five pieces of brugmansia cuttings. Thus I brag about the provenance of my angel's trumpets. Alas, I left them out too late one year, and only two survived. But the strongest survivor, now stands over 6 feet tall.

I have them in large pots; they are lugged out every summer to the patio, fussed over, and fed to encourage the formation of these glorious blossoms. (I had read somewhere that brugmansias thrive on tomato fertilizer.) In mid-September, the luminous pink, fragrant lanterns burst open suddenly, and lit up the corner of the garden by my little greenhouse shed.

Even now there are still a few buds on the plant, late stragglers, which I expect to burst into flower within the next week if the weather in Brooklyn holds. Before long, I will have to cut the plants back, bring them in, and let them live under the greenhouse table for the winter.

At this point, I catch my breath at this detail.

Friday, October 3, 2008

The Life of a Cardoon

The cardoon, Cynara cardunculus, is often called an "architectural" plant. What this means is that the plant is tall and distinctive looking, with lots of structure. It stands. It looks like a statuesque artichoke, which is in the same horticultural family Cynara. An Italian delicacy, bagna cauda, calls for the stalks to be blanched and baked as a casserole in a flavored bechamel sauce.

But if you leave the flower head on the plant till late fall, you will be treated to this spectacular seed head, towering over the rest of the vegetable patch.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Swan Plant, of the African Milkweed Family

During a visit to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden two weekends ago, we came across a most unusual looking plant. The labels appeared misleading. I overheard a passerby reading aloud Narcissus "Ice Follies" from a nearby plaque as a possible ID. But I knew this plant was no daffodil. A label turned inside out read Moon Carrot, or Seseli gummiferum. Now that sounded quite likely. Yet upon further research, moon carrot, or Seseli flowers looked very different from what we have here, and nowhere was there any mention of the strange looking pods that were so very eye-catching. It just didn't compute.

An email message to the Garden Resource Center at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden yielded the answer, well within 24 hours, with a link to a plant forum in the University of British Columbia website. Our plant is Gomphocarpus physocarpus, one of which common names is the swan plant. So there you are - the swan plant, (or balloon cottonbush, or bladderbush, or wild cotton, and so forth.) But naturally, I favor the swan, and if you look closely at the flower, you may find the clue to the genesis of this more poetic common name. Briefly, according to that source, this is in the African milkweed family, and has apparently established itself in parts of the tropics, where the plant can be invasive. Fortunately, all it can be hereabouts is an annual.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Squash, or Zucchini - The Flower

Has anyone ever seen a squash flower in a more glorious state of deshabille?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Mother of Pergolas

One of the loveliest pergolas is in the Conservatory Garden in northern Central Park in New York City.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Acanthus mollis: this leaf is the basis for the capital of the Corinthian column in the classical orders of Greek architecture

Yellow Wax Beans

This yellow wax bean, a variety the seed packet calls the yellow round-podded Kinghorn wax, Phaseolus vulgarus, is grown in a large pot outside the greenhouse. White bean flowers, typical of legume flowers, cling to the tips of each pod as they elongate and lighten to yellow.

Recently harvested, sauteed whole and untrimmed in a hot cast iron pan with a bit of walnut oil, the waxy pods took turns shooting out tiny geysers of liquid as they cooked. Needless to say, they were delicious, their pale lemon color striped with dark char lines present a gorgeous foil to the tomatoes and other greens on the plate.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Beady Mossy Rocky Mini-Landscapes

A few years ago, I put together another set of boxes, small, 6"w x 6"l x 1-1/4"d, consisting of pieces of moss that I had collected from a friend's discarded flower pots, and transplanted to my group of melamine trays, large and small. Lately, I've added glass beads from my beading projects to a couple of them...

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Other Little Red Greenhouse Goes to Gent...

...and displays itself in a shop window
(photo courtesy of Marijke Bontinck)

Monday, September 15, 2008

Little Red Greenhouse

The piece shown above, Little Red Greenhouse, will be shown in the

Küf/Mold 2008 Exhibition in Gent, Belgium

(check out link to Kuf/Mold blog on left.)

Because the piece had to travel from Brooklyn to Gent, only one of the two "little red greenhouses," a red Plexiglass box, 14-1/2"h x 10"w x 10"l, with seams polished to neon brightness will be shown. Plants will be bought and installed locally by the show's curators Suzan Batu, Bill Doherty and Marijke Bontinck.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Then there is drink

Golden hops, Humulus lupulus 'aureus' is gorgeous, prolific and fast growing. It covers an entire fence in the first few weeks of spring with chartreuse trilobed leaves; it will wind its tendrils around all its neighbors if you do not keep a watchful eye. Towards mid-summer, the "hops" - blossoms looking like soft, greenish yellow pine cones which hang lantern-like, light up the already bright summer days. The plant thrives in full sun to part shade.

It will also make you beer. (Sorry, I cannot provide recipes, not being a drinker - my system lacks the enzyme that processes injested alcohol. My appreciation for the plant is purely aesthetic.) A German acquaintance once told me about hop harvesting season in his hometown, when friends gather for brewing parties. I think he was pulling my leg.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The flowers before the fruit

The little yellow flowers can yield huge shiny red fruits or little red cherry ones; they may also give rise to the yellowish or orange pear shaped ones, the cheerful orange globes. (You wouldn't think these simple sweet sunny flowers related to deadly nightshade, but if you're familiar with belladonna, you will recognize the similarity in the structure of both flowers, the flowers of the deadly nightshade an ominous dark purple.)

And the fruits picked from the vine will all be inordinately delicious - or so I've been told - as in truth I'm not the most fond of tomatoes to eat, but my loved ones love them, and that is more than enough reason for me to plant them. So each morning I rush out into the garden to inspect the daily ripening, and marvel at the beauty of it all. I can barely tear myself away.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

And then there is FOOD

Gardening is about food.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Why a-gitate? And in the city no less?

Why a-gitate?

Clearly, the obvious reference is the acronymous reflective in : A - Garden Is The Answer To Everything.
Humpphh... nothing but wordplay, you say... Well, you would be right. And clearly, too, this one here has an agenda.

So consider this:
The dictionary (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/agitate) also defines agitate thus:
5.to call attention to by speech or writing; discuss; debate: to agitate the question.
6.to consider on all sides; revolve in the mind; plan.
7.to arouse or attempt to arouse public interest and support, as in some political or social cause or theory

Of course, most people assume the first four definitions, which mostly point to the standard meaning of the word, involving anxiety, even violently intense motion or emotion.

But look at this passionflower, Passiflora caerulea, from the Brooklyn garden, the vine dies back every winter, coming back every summer, self-seeding itself all over the garden , I pull unwanted seedlings up like weeds - their long taproot prevents easy transplanting. (All photos in this blog, unless otherwise noted, are by Larry Hedrick)

That is one strange looking flower, you say. Wait till I show you what it does to the bees...

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Back to Spring

A short clip on YouTube takes us back to the earlier part of the year, showing the garden coming alive: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=67U_WRUJFmE

Pokey the red-eared slider slept through the winter, burrowing herself underneath the muck at the bottom of the pond. The fish, four koi and two plain-jane gold, have kept silent company with her, ever since her introduction into their midst three summers ago. She chased me down the garden path the first day she fully awoke. I never thought I'd see a turtle sprint, I knew then that she was truly hungry. So I fed her.

Of late, Revitt McPhee, the bulfrog, has not been heard, but that's not to say he's gone. He boomed his first note and took up residence here last summer.

It's Puggles' thirteenth year, fifth in this particular garden.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Gardening is the Answer to Everything

A Garden is the Answer to Everything.

A-gitate for gardens: they are they are the answer to everything.