Thursday, June 18, 2009

Do Not Bemoan The Spines, Part 1

They call this the porcupine tomato plant, Solanum pyracanthum, or firethorn nightshade - you get the idea.

In this unseasonably cool early summer, they haven't started to flower, even at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. In a few weeks, light purplish blue flowers with yellow anthers will bloom, soon to be followed by small round greenish yellow fruits- just like a tomato.

But need I tell you that those thorns mean business? I would suggest strongly that this plant be admired for purely ornamental reasons, and that one desists from eating this "tomato." For one thing, being of the nightshade family, the deadly- deadly, as in poisonous - qualities of select nightshades are reputedly truly potent. And this particular one would fall in with that reputation.

But look at those gorgeous flame-orange thorns against the glaucous leaves. Wicked plants can be beautiful too.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Redbud in the Red

One can get granular in the garden sometimes. Pick up a leaf. Look at it against the sky, in the light. Take the heart-shaped leaf of the purple-leaved variety of the redbud, Cercis canadensis "Forest Pansy."

The underside of the leaf is bright red shooting off magentas this time of the year. The midrib runs straight through, the lateral veins branching off this main track, glowing light along a greengold stretch. As one follows this tracery, the remarkable crisscross of veins across the surface of the leaf blade suggests an aerial map of an unworldly beauty.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Birds, They Do Come to Brooklyn

If you've ever spent serious time pursuing the activity of birdwatching, you will understand the excitement when a male indigo bunting, Passerina cyanea, is sighted during a mundane trip to the compost bin in a Brooklyn backyard. Apparently male indigo buntings will sing conspicuously out in the open, (the reports also state that the females are a drab brown but secretive - you gotta love Nature.) So here he is, folks: my INDIGO BUNTING - first sighted, singing on the reed fence, and then, here, perched on the power line running through the neighbor's yard.

As far as I can surmise, this would not be a common occurrence, by any stretch of the imagination. Buntings, grosbeaks and such birds are not known to frequent urban backyards, though more and more these recent years, pairs of cardinals appear to be nesting hereabouts, gracing us with their bright presence.

And then there was the youthful Veery, Catharus fuscescens, whom I initially mistook for a mouse when he hopped into the pile of twigs I was bundling up after trimming the branches of the thirty-foot tall Callery pear tree overhanging my yard from my neighbor's astroturf- carpeted one. We stared at each other - he, most certainly, with trepidation - and I, in great astonishment. Thanks to the marvels of present day communications technology, I was able to make a phone call to my photographer retainer sitting thirty feet away inside the house in his study, to come outside and snap this testamentary photograph.

Misgivings about definite identification of my little friend were quelled upon checking in with Donald and Lillian Stokes, who inform us in their Field Guide to Birds that the eastern subspecies of the Veery is cinnamon brown above with a slightly spotted white breast. We are told that it gleans food from the forest floor and the bark of trees, often overturning leaves on the ground with its bill in search of food and eats insects, larvae, spiders, snails, earthworms and wild fruit - most of which abound in my little patch of dirt. Furthermore, "the male Veery often sings his beautiful song from a perch at dusk. Although commonly heard, this bird frequently stays hidden in dense woods, making it a challenge to observe. Much more needs to be learned about its behavior."

I am happy to say that for ten minutes this late lingering spring, I have been graced with the challenge. And reader, I will tell you, that the behaviors described in the books do fit the birds.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Down the Garden Path

And the long view


It's hard to resist posting these portraits of tulips this time of the year. So here they are.

And, no, for once I will not name them.

I'm just going to let them be

What they are

Who they are.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Purple Fritillaries

The purple version of the Fritillaria mileagris looks as if an artist took a fine sable paintbrush and meticulously dabbed dark and light grape-colored gingham checks onto the flower petals. As might be expected, one of its common names is the checkered lily. There is a white variety as well, quite as dainty - though I can't help but have a special fondness for the checkerboard patterned ones which, after all, lends its latinate meaning to the word "fritillary."

There is another purple fritillary, the statuesque Fritillaria persica - native to Turkey - from whence many of the bulbous flowers (a prime example being the tulip) seem to have hailed. F. persica lords it over many of the shorter bulbs blooming at this time of the spring season. The flower begins the season as a stack of tiny white seed beads, each row lengthening into buds gradually fattening into nuggets of grapes, finally unfurling into a stalk of clustered alternating bells heads above the rest.

And if you're naughty and look up their purple skirts, you will see the chromium orange stamens and pistils peering back at you impassively. And they will not fritter nor twitter nor flutter. Those Queen of the Night petals wear their regal raiment with suitable gravitas.

Damn your impertinence. So, there!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Pokey, Again

Portrait of a Turtle

This week's cold snap has sent Pokey the Turtle, our red-eared slider, who lives in the little pond back down under. But she was caught sunning herself quite blatantly on those few warmish days that hit the sixties.

And this year she did not chase me down the garden path on her first day up and about. She was quite sedate.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Bright Parrots at Dinner

Friends arrive for dinner and brought frozen yogurt and sorbet AND a gorgeous bunch of Tulip Bright Parrot. This bouquet captures for me the essence of one of the many joys of life - sharing a meal with friends and loved ones. With the advent of spring, and tulip bulbs in the ground not quite budding yet, Bright Parrot promises so much.

This particular meal consisted of a chicken dish I had adapted from a Mark Bittman New York Times recipe for duck breast, in turn adapted from a traditional Italian stuffed pork dish, Porchetta. The stuffing contained of a mixture of Parmesan cheese, garlic, fennel seeds, fresh rosemary in an olive oil binder. My own trick was to wrap the chicken breast with prosciutto. Sides were mushroom risotto and a fresh fennel and carrot relish. A strawberry chocolate clafouti served with vanilla ice cream topped all this off. And, naturally, coffee and tea.

I considered that winter was being seen off with an appropriately weighty hurrah - to the eye, to the palate, and yes, to the gut.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

This is Not Forsythia

I plant witch hazel because I love its delicate fragrance and because it blooms in the winter. Bright sunny yellow threads radiate from dark red calyces, clinging to frozen bare branches, or intermingling with snow laden ones.

In my garden here grow the Chinese witch hazel Hamamelis mollis and the hybrid H. x intermedia 'Primavera.' A third was to have been H. 'Jelena' - the rusty red flowering variety - but instead grew up to be H. 'Pallida' with pale lemon flowers, when it was discovered the year after planting that the nursery had sent the wrong variety.

But no matter.

Red or yellow, some years the witch hazel may start blooming as early as Christmas time. This year it was late January before the thin yellowish streamers began to slowly unfurl, like miniature hatchlings, from cobby ochre buds nestled against the bare branches.

The cold keeps them going. They love it. But it is on warmer days that one truly gets whiffs of the powdery fragrance that brings back the flickery sensations of toddler days apres le bain.

Witch hazel is what keeps me reconciled to chilly March - even cold April days. And then there is the unmistakable addendum of sculpturally ridged leaves which turn gold, orange and red in autumn.

And so, with apologies to forsythia lovers, I will say "there is no comparison."

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Promise of Blue

Iris reticulata, that squat little beauty, pokes itself through the blanket of March snow, having shown up as one of the earliest harbinger of spring, a couple of weeks now. After the rains, more of them show up to stay.

And lo, just a day or so ago, the patch of giant crocuses burst into blue flames.

Meanwhile, throughout this time, the blue jay has been showing up as a noisy undertone to the premise that BLUE heralds spring as much as GREEN.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Landscape with Chair and Bench

A patch of dirt, a place to sit, a structure over one's head. Do these not constitute a garden? Most certainly, I say.

Perhaps it has become a cliche these days to opine that a garden is a state of mind. Yet here it is - an elegant pergola rests partially on a sawhorse and a chair. The chair seems to have been upended for the nonce, but benches sing with the colors of growth, and the scent of earthy mulch twitches the senses. Overhead floods and spots deconstruct into intriguing shadows on the ground.

All this, in the midst of a wintry month, is nothing if not a welcome sight.

Jim Osman's installation is on exhibit at the Brooklyn campus of the Long Island University Humanities Gallery (first floor Humanities Building, gallery hours 9-6,) till the end of February.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Name that Plant

One is constantly surprised by what a plant might throw up in one's face. For example, I had no idea what this plant was when I first encountered it over ten years ago.

Later I surmised that my plant was a kelanchoe. Much, much later on, with more information, I concluded it to be K. delagoensis, aka Chandelier Plant, or Mother of Millions, or Mother of Thousands.

I had first discovered its spindly stem crawling out of a cracked seam from the rotting wooden windowsill in my previous studio; there was no dirt, unless one counts dust. I kept a watchful eye over it, though I never took any active caring steps with it. Yet through thick and thin, mostly thin, (and it remained skinny,) my studio companion weathered the years with me. When the time came for me to leave that studio, I understood my unofficial mascot was accompanying me. So, carefully I dislodged the plant from its place in the sun and brought it home - in time, to be potted up and reside in the new greenhouse.

And how did it do in its new abode? See for yourself. Above is a picture of my particular kelanchoe, prayerful, if a bit fangy, in its first year of life in potted soil.

But beware: do not - I repeat - do not let it loose. Those coiners of common names for plants do not jest, all those epithets: mother of thousands, mother of millions. They mean it: really I'd say mother of trillions, mother of gazillions - for once one of those cute wee little clinging babies hits pay dirt, each has no qualm at all about growing up to become...


And yet, and yet...
Look again, see what grows on top. One has to, yet again, hand it to the plant-namers:


Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Mulch Pow(d)er

Some people see "winter wonderland," and yes, it is, sort of - a miniature urban one - I will not deny it.

But I see mulch.

The powder of snow is the perfect mulch for all that is percolating beneath its white blanket. And fortunately back here where only the dog - a pug - mostly trudges, the blanket stays mostly white a bit longer than what falls on the streets of the city.

Grapefruits, or Pomelos?

During a visit this fall to Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, in one of their greenhouses, I admired giant pots of what I took to be a gargantuan variety of unripe grapefruit, Citrus × paradisi. I have since then concluded that they are pomelos, Citrus maxima, or C. grandis.

And indeed, maxima they are, and grandis, too.

Having made that discovery, I've started noticing that pomelos are now being sold at greengrocers around town. Displayed on the fruit stand next to our more familiar paradise, or forbidden, citrus - the grapefruit - the pomelo definitely projects a blowsier appearance, almost twice the size of the former. And indeed one finds that underneath the rind is almost an inch of fleshy white pulpy membrane. In taste, pomelos are a milder version of the grapefruit. If you're one of those who habitually sugar your grapefruit, you may wish to give the pomelo a trial.

And really, looking at the beauties from Longwood, I apologize for even daring to associate the word "blowsy" with them. I suspect that these are the Californian variety, and like many others from that neighborhood, they are spiffier than most. They are lovely. And they are in season now.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Promise

Just a reminder: There is buried treasure under that white stuff. These will be daffodils in a couple of months.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Jewelry of the Winter Garden

In these chilly days of January, one is hit by the idea that the garden produces jewels. And we are not talking metaphorically. We are not referring to the fruits of the vines or the trees in the summer, as in, "oh, what a gem of a tomato this is! Doesn't it look gorgeous?"

No. We're talking about a vibrantly red leaf, say, of the Viburnum bodnantense 'Dawn,' hanging on for dear life on the very end of the twig, gravity exerting its will in the guise of an encrustation of crystal ice.

Or buds of that very same viburnum with a dusting of powder snow, a bit before its fragrant flowers break into full bloom later in the season, in February. If one could pluck the bud, encase the entire bit in a solution of permanent crystal ice to wear as a pendant on a chain, one would have a necklace Tiffany's couldn't manufacture under any circumstance.

Or how can one resist the allure of a spray of the thready flowers of gem-encrusted witch hazel, Hamamelis x intermedia 'Primavera,' pinned to the lapel of an elegant suit jacket? No jewelry store, however classy, can match what the garden has to offer, shown below.

And here's a cluster of diamonds from the air; no carbon mine in the earth can yield this bunch up.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

More Wintry Scenes from Brooklyn

Though one may occasionally detect a slight icy mist around it, the pond is crystal clear these days. Pokey the Turtle has gone to bed beneath the muck in the pond's bottom. The goldfish and koi spend their days moving about languidly. Spears of Juncus effusus 'Spiralis' - corkscrew rush and Iris sibirica are crushed under the weight of the previous days' snowfall, but the pond does not freeze. (And even if it does freeze, my trusty little red pond de-icer will keep an opening in the ice so that the water below the ice will remain oxygenated.)

And elsewhere in the garden, those golden fronds of Amsonia hubrechtii swoon onto the virgin snow, though if one looks more closely, the snow is not quite as maidenly as one might imagine at first light. The birds have already visited.

A few days later, after the rains, the bones of the garden resurface.