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 shrubs 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.

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!

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 of the 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.


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.