Sunday, April 5, 2015

Fiacre: Green for the Soul

One of my favorite places to loiter and get rejuvenated is Fiacre on Pleasant Street, in Portland, Maine. It is like entering another world. Exquisite hand-crafted greenhouse accessories combine with exotic flowers and plants to create a garden lovers paradise. Saint Fiacre, for those who don't know, is the patron saint of gardening, and those who grow vegetables and medicinal plants. An Irish monk who lived in Meaux, France in the mid 600's, he is commonly invoked for healing based on his skill with medicinal plants.


Run by Melissa and her partner Angus, you will always find something to treat yourself with or bring to a firiend. In winter there is always narcissus with hand-blown vases to grow them in, myrtle topiaries, and cut flowers not seen much in Maine (see above the gorgeous long stem french tulips!) She has hand forged tools and contemporary planters with an industrial edge. Some of her things have a reference to history and famous gardens, like the black raven statues she had last summer that were copies from Colonial Willamsburg.


When I was in the other day, she had just bought this stunning magnolia branch to bring the window to life. We all need to see things like this after this long winter! She has a eye for the extravagant accent. Excellent hand crafted terracotta pots, and one of a kind planters are everywhere. She was telling me that she has coming in some great mocha terracotta that she found outside of Rome. Each time I am in I buy another pot to add to my collection!


All the statuary and pots have that mossy look like they have already been in the garden for awhile. The concrete figures are beautifully cast and unusual. The air smells like the hand made soaps and salves on the shelves.


She has the classics soaps like Savon de Marsielles and Cucina as well as other smaller millers.


They have a fantastic selection of books on gardens, gardening and cooking. Again, her taste is selective with books by Netherlands garden design guru Piet Oudolf, and new sensations like Holly Herrick, the Charleston, South Carolina food writer (I hear her book on French sauces is fantastic!). Her partner Angus is the creator of all the wonderful colorful ceramics in the shop that are a nice addition to the neutral colors of terracotta and concrete. The atmosphere in the shop is casual and very down to earth, a great place for a pleasant conversation about all things garden with two people who are modest, yet incredibly knowledgeable.




When you are in you also might suddenly have two new friends who might follow you quietly around the store, so be careful where you step! Their two little terriers are often sleeping in the sun coming through the front door, but are happy to check you out when you come in.

I recommend a visit to this oasis after the long winter. Melissa goes to the flower market in Boston most weeks and she will have something irresistible for you!

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Drunken Botanist



One of my favorite parts of the day is listening to books in the car on the way to work. I just recently finished reading an incredibly well researched book by Amy Stewart. For all you botany nerds, for anyone who enjoys the craft of cocktails, and for those of you who enjoy the history of how we use plants - well this book is for you.  Written by New York Times best-selling author Amy Stewart, this book is about the botanical origins of the things we drink - alcoholic things we drink. First, she goes into great detail about which plants have been cultivated, for what drinks and by whom. In part two, she talks about how these ingredients are combined with other botanical flavorings and this is where it really got interesting. Herbs and spices like licorice, gentian, juniper and wormwood, and fruits such as citrus, figs, currants add their flavor so so many cordials and liqueurs. Trees like Angostura, Birch and Sugar Maple and nuts like the almond, hazelnut and walnut all add subtle flavors to the things we drink. Learning about all the small family cordial makers and craft distilleries that often have been making the liqueurs for generations was fascinating.

Caution though, this book may lead to this.....




After listening to this all week, I had to find something interesting to drink on Saturday in our local Bow Street Market. Something rare maybe, hand crafted, and wild. I knew I like herbal tasting gins. Then I saw this on the shelf! The Botanist! How could I resist!? A wild foraged gin made on the island of Islay (pronounced I-You-Wah in Gaelic!?) on the Inner Hebrides of Scotland! Having been to that part of the world when I was 20, I imagined (and waxed nostalgic for) island people who speak Scottish Gaelic, roaming the windy moors to gather the wild herbs on the cliffs, the caw of seagull rookeries below, the lonely lakes where wild brown trout live....this is before I even had any!
Such a beautifully made product, needed to be accompanied by a equally hand crafted tonic and so I picked up some Fever-Tree Premium Indian Tonic Water with real quinine and ginger. Less sweet than a regular tonic, these pure ingredients put the finishing touch to a Saturday night. Special indeed.


Saturday, March 21, 2015

Witch-hazels in Bloom!


With spring taking its time to get here this year, I was overjoyed to see the witch-hazels blooming at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens this week! Even though you can't see the ground, these trees know spring is coming. As some of you know, I just started a new job at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens and so I will have access to many great photo opportunities in the future! As Interpretation and Exhibits Coordinator I have already learned so much and look forward to working on art exhibits, wayfinding and other interpretation. I feel honored to be part of such a great team!


Here is the Hamamelis × intermedia 'Pallida' witch-hazel in bloom on the path to the Visitor's Center.  This small tree was used by the Native Americans (usually Hamamelis virginiana) and early settlers to make an astringent. Used on sores and wounds, it is still commercially available today. I can remember that distinctive smell of the witchhazel we had in the bathroom medicine cabinet as a kid, and using it on my adolescent skin. It is an anti-oxident as well and has been used to help psoriasis and eczema.


At the Gardens, it is only three and a half weeks until the Visitor's Center is open and we are very busy getting everything ready. Hope to see you all after April 15th as we have an amazing line up of art shows, workshops and lectures, shop goodies and great food.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Redpolls and Robins


Laura Erickson, MN, Saks-Zim Bog, January 2009

Signs that the season is changing can be seen at the feeder. Only at this time of year do I get Common Redpolls in huge groups. You don't have to be looking out the window to know they are there as they announce their presence with their clatterous calls. Busy and frenetic! They are actually on their way home to the most northern regions of Canada. They are small like sparrows but have heavily striped side markings and a bright red cap. Unmistakeable! The males will show a bit a red on the breast. 

Bill McMullen, ON, Clarence-Rockland, March 2011

Females might fool you into thinking they are a sparrow, but then you see the bright red head and yellow finch beak. On their way back to the arctic tundra and boreal forests, they are only passing through looking for birch catkins and weed seeds. Your thistle or nyjer seed will be perfect for them. Click here to hear their call.
 
Garth McElroy/VIREO
Robins also have been passing through. These Robins seem a bit different though. Their bellies are much brighter and the white part of their bellies also is brighter white. Apparently sometimes Robins do not migrate far and can overwinter here in Maine, but this large group at the feeder seemed to be on the move. I hope the fruit and seeds will be plentiful for them along the way.
What interesting birds have you seen at the feeder lately?

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Naples Botanical Garden




 As promised, I will show you the beautiful Naples Botanical Garden. Unfortunately though, these are pictures from several years ago. Our flight ended up being cancelled and we couldn't rebook because of the weather. Oh well, I can still show you the warm weather beauty of this garden.


Winding paths take you through the many themed gardens. 


On your way to the Children's Garden, you can step inside the Pfeffer-Beach Butterfly House. This is an enclosed structure where visitors can can step inside and see butterflies hatching from pupa almost everyday of the week.The Chrysalid House is nearby many plants that provide sustenance for the newly transformed.


 Plantings in the Butterfly Garden like this Lion's Ear (Leonotis Nepitifolia) attract it's inhabitants.


The Vicky C. and David Byron Smith Children's Garden has lots of annuals that attract bees and butterflies. Buildings and fences are on a small scale.

Mina Lobata growing on an arbor attracts a bumble bee to its pollen.


The path to the Brazilian Garden winds up a small hill. Dramatic in color and texture, the stroll has a festive flair.


The distinctive feature is the water garden filled with giant water-lilies and lotus. I just read that a simple way to tell the difference between a lotus and waterlily. Waterlilies flowers and leaves float on the surface of the water, and lotuses rise above the surface of the water.


It takes a second to realize that they must have painted the pool in a dark paint. You can't see into the water, but only see the reflections. A dramatic effect with the brilliant colors of the lilies and lotuses contrasted against the brilliant blue sky!


Next you travel over to The  Kapnick Caribbean Garden. A turquoise island house is back drop to a naturalized landscape. But Caribbean botanical history is mostly about the people who stopped there. Very quickly after Christopher Columbus saw this part of the world, it transformed. I recommend the book 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann for a detailed account of this momentous biological event.


 Then the path takes you back through to the Asian Garden. Fruiting palms are gorgeous along the path in February.


Back at the beginning, bananas flower and fruit. This northerner has Gauguinian (as in Paul Gauguin) dreams of living off the fruits of the land in paradise. Quickly though I remember how that worked out for him and realize, I will just have to admire this for brief visits from time to time.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

What a Difference a Day can Make


Today we are under siege from snow again. We shovelled four feet of snow from the roof yesterday, just so it can accumulate again today. I must admit that a snowy day where there is nothing to do but read and hunker down can be nice- but really- even I have limits! 
But tomorrow will be a different day! Off to Naples Florida we go!

Naples Botanical Garden

Tomorrow the landscape will have green in it. Can't wait to go to some of my favorite public outdoor spaces, The Naples Botanical Gardens and the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. Of course, just the beach at Pelican Bay is wonderful with an incredible amount of bird and ocean life.

Pelican Bay Beach

Next week I will have lots of pictures of things found at the Naples Botanical Gardens to show. Until then, stay warm!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Monet's Dahlias


It is that time again! Buying the year's seeds and tubers is my favorite ritual of the winter Sunday. As it is snowing another 2-5 inches today, I can dream of all the new varieties and changes I want to make in the garden. I have always dreamed of being a serious collector of dahlias, but have not had enough space to give over to a plant that only starts blooming in Maine in mid September. This year though I have a new rototilled area that will be perfect for dahlias and potatoes. This new bed is on the end of the house, near the compost pile and burn pit. Perfect for growing things that may not be beautiful all summer, but need full sun. My love of dahlias started long ago with my seeing my father's friend grow dahlias for shows. I remember his dinner plate varieties all had little umbrellas that he moved with the sun to protect the blooms until the next exhibition. 

Monet's Garden and House at Giverny
 
But then, it became obsession after visiting Giverny, Monet's spectacular house and gardens in France. Being in France for the months of September and October, all the public gardens were filled with dahlias. I was curious if they had been planted later in the summer from greenhouses. They were the main feature, and if it is anything like here, you would have nothing in bloom the rest of the season. Oh yeah, it is not like here! They probably did have greenhouses growing these plants and they planted them like annual beds. Here are some photos from Monet's collection of dahlias. I don't know any of the varieties, but it was a visual feast!




Monet's Gardens and house are not over rated, if you haven't seen them they are something to try to see. Family, home, gardening, food, and art are the focus of his life at this time in his mature life. Though necessity often dictated his choices of where to live, he dug right in and made Giverny the heart from which to inspire all his work. Gardens, house and collections speak of a life well lived. This understanding of the man permeates how I see his painting. I see what he choose to value and how deeply he immersed himself.
So now to go through my tuber catalogs and find a few new varieties to try. I have last year's tubers in boxes in sawdust in the basement that are already pushing up new growth. Come April I will pot them in pots and then transplant well after frost to the new bed.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Botanical Walk in India



As I hear the plow once again in the neighbors driveway I am craving green. Looking back at pictures from our trip to India last year, I can smell the spice in the air. In the heat, the plants give off a fragrance that permeates the whole atmosphere. So many commonly seen trees and bushes are used every day in cooking. Here are some pictures from a botanical walk with some new friends from the SITA (South India Term Abroad) center we were with for a few days.
The incredible staff at the SITA Center on our arrival.
Once they knew I was interested in plants, the staff pointed out all the trees, bushes and plants we passed that were used in some way. It seemed that almost every plant had some folklore and medicinal application. At first I thought that it was only our knowledgeable hosts that knew so much. But then after days of even cab drivers talking about "how my grandmother would give us this for headaches" and tour guides talking about plants at historic sites, I realized that every person had quite a working knowledge of the plants around them and their uses. It was an oral history being passed down in the family.
Pomegranate

Here in the US we can usually get most spices we want for any type of cooking, but rarely do we see how they grow.  In Indian cooking they use a lot of spice. By that I mean so much that it becomes the paste and base for all sauces. There are so many spices to choose from, that the combinations are almost infinite. Here is a link to a list of many of these herbs. So many dishes are vegetarian too! Here are a few pictures I took of the ways things look on the vine so to speak.

Curry Tree

Curry is common in Indian cooking, but does not come from one plant. Curry powder is a Western notion that originated in the 18th century and usually a mix of coriander, tumeric and cumin. This young tree above is called a Curry Tree and the leaves are used in many curry dishes along with many other ingredients (although many "curries" do not use these leaves.) These leaves are fried along with onions in the first step in a good curry. They have a very distinctive flavor. It is spices and plants like this that make it very hard to recreate Indian food as eaten in India here in the US.

Jack Fruit
Like other fruits in the hotter parts of the world, the smell of the Jack Fruit is initially repugnant to our western senses. But like other smelly fruit it has a tasty interior flesh that is  mellow and delicious. It always amazed me on the tree!

Ms. Nirmala Christina looking at the Tumeric
One of the most interesting things I learned was how most Indian spices have medicinal qualities that have guaranteed them a spot in traditional cooking. Tumeric is a great example of this. A bitter herb with not much flavor, Tumeric has anti-parasitic properties. We were told that they use it a lot on fish because traditionally people put tumeric on fish to keep parasites away. They also knew that if the Tumeric turned red, the fish had already been infected. Making so much sense in a hot country where food goes bad fast, to use a plant that kills parasites and changes color in their presence, brilliant! The bright yellow powder is made from the dried ground tubers. Read more about all the medicinal qualities of Indian plants here.

Star Fruit
These Star Fruit can be missed as they look so much like the leaves!

Cumin
Here is a stand of cumin, looking much they way coriander grows. The seeds are ground to make the spice. Cumin, coriander (cilantro seed), fennel, black and white cardamon, fenugreek and different colored peppers are some staples.


I wish I could remember what this beautiful pink flower and bush was. Any guesses? It is obvious from the picture that this was important- oh well. I will try and use a plant ID website to find out.

Tamarind

One of the most common trees is the Tamarind. Here in Madurai they are everywhere. Tamarind is a an essential part of south asian cuisine and comes from the bean inside a pod from this tree.

Cinnamon: Dinodia Photos via Getty Images
 Here is what Cinnamon looks like before they peel the bark. The inner bark is then extracted and dried.

So much to take in, I realized I should always bring a notebook in situations like botanical walks in India! I learned so much and have a broader sense of what India is like, but know it is only the surface deep. Once outside the huge cities, tradition, family, good food made by hand, and a deep connection to their environment was what I saw.  Many take-aways for this American novice.