Category Archives: Plants

A passion of mine

Prunes! er…dried Plums!

Prune: A plum preserved by drying, having a black, wrinkled appearance

Plum: A prune before it’s preserved by drying…

Around the first of September the Italian plum trees begin to drop their fruit and I swing into harvest frenzy.

A block up the street from my house are two derelict plum trees I consider my own. Every morning I make my way up the hill to “my” trees, with a couple of plastic bags that once held the morning paper. I call the trees mine because the absent owners of the lot they sit on seem neither to care either for the trees nor their produce, but I do. If I don’t collect the plums they just rot and get eaten by ants, birds, and yellow jackets.

Picking plums is like hunting Easter eggs, because the plums hide in the tall grass under the tree like so many blue-frosted Easter eggs. (Prune plums aren’t ready if you have to pluck them off the tree; they have to drop. Commercial pickers shake the trees.)

I come home laden.I make one batch of plum jam each fall (the best jam in the world), then transform the rest into prunes.You slice them in half, remove the pits and place them on racks in the food dryer for a couple of days per batch.

Since I don’t use any chemicals on them, I bag them up and keep them in the frig or freezer.Prunes are of course famous for helping with “regularity”, but in more recent years nutrition experts extol their anti-oxidant content.

Whatever. I love them. My family loves them. My friends love them. A baggie of my home-dried prunes or a jar of the jam is a cherished hostess gift or stocking present.

I know I said that my favorite dessert in the world was blackberry cobbler, but I forgot my other favorite dessert: plum kuchen.Keep reading: the recipe is at the bottom of this post.

Yesterday I drove past MY trees on the way back from an errand and noticed someone standing under one of them.She had her hands full of MY plums. It turned out to be my dear friend Kathi!

“What are you doing picking MY plums?” I demanded.

“Have you got a baggie in your car?” she responded. “My hands are full and I’ve got a ways to walk yet.”

Kathi and I are going to have to duke this one out. She can go find her own damn tree because there are other derelict prune trees in the ‘hood. In fact Clark County WA, where I live, used to be one of the top prune-growing areas in the US. No kidding.

These trees are vestiges of an agricultural crop that sustained the area for about fifty years starting in the 1880s. By 1900 more than 435,000 prune plum trees were producing 819 tons of fruit a year. I’m not sure whether that was fresh or dry weight.

Prunes were popular because they could be shipped long distances without spoiling. Records from that time suggest that 75% of the crop went to Germany, Austria and Poland.They sold for fifteen cents a pound until after World War I.

After the 1930s California began producing prunes in greater variety and more cheaply and local business declined. A World War II embargo banned shipments to Germany. Then an insect infestation destroyed many orchards, and growers turned to other crops.

Most of the old trees, including mine, are still small, gnarly, sickly. Most are missing at least half their branches, and the branches that remain are often dying or thickly covered with small branches known as water spouts.

And yet, every fall the miracle happens – perfect purple plums plop from the tired old branches – and I am so grateful.

Plum Kuchen (from Gourmet Magazine, ca 1975)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees

Sift together into a mixing bowl:

2 c. flour
2 T. sugar
½ t. salt
¼ t. baking powder

With a pastry blender or two knives, cut into the dry ingredients until the mixture looks mealy:

1 stick (1/2 cup) butter.

Pat an even layer of the mixture firmly over the bottom and halfway up the sides of an 8” square baking pan. (I prefer an 8” round spring form pan – when you remove the side it looks more like a French tart.)

Over the bottom pastry, arrange:

1 lb. Italian prune plums, halved and pitted.

Sprinkle the fruit with a blend of:
¾ c. sugar
1 t. ground cinnamon

Bake in a 400 degree oven for 15 minutes.

Beat together and pour over the fruit:

1 egg
1 c. sour cream
,.

Continue the baking for 30 minutes longer. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Purple poop: blackberry season

Purple: adj. a color intermediate between red and blue

Poop: n. excrement (but you knew that).

I’m a blackberry addict (and not the phone).  As much as I love eating blackberries, my addiction is actually to picking them…

I know when they’re ready for picking without tasting a single one; I just look down at the sidewalk near my house and see purple seedy bird droppings. From the color of the walk, we’re now at the height of the season.

It’s Blackberry Central here in the Pacific Northwest.  The bushes (Rubus, spp.) can be found wherever the dirt remains untended in vacant lots, by the road, along the walking paths. They are hardy and ingenious plants, doing whatever they can to ensure the survival of the species.

The long vining branches take root wherever they touch the ground – and with a plethora of thorns they protect these rooting branches from their human enemies who would destroy them.

To prevent the thicket from becoming too thick, blackberry bushes use their fruit to entice birds to spread the gospel far and wide.  In a bird’s belly, the berries mix with certain chemicals that help the seeds germinate once they hit the ground in plops of purple poop.

Over the years farmers have bred fancy berries that have no thorns, that are plumper, that are bigger – but IMHO none of them can compare to the deep flavor of the real “wild” thing.  Some of the most important commercially grown brambles are actually blackberry/red raspberry hybrids. Think Boysenberry, Loganberry, Marionberry and Youngberry.

Blackberry picking is part treasure hunt, part dance, part meditation. First you have to find the right bushes. Some look promising as you speed by in your car, but when you return later with the pail you discover that the berries are dessicated, under-ripe, or much less accessible than it first appeared.

New rule: However tall you are, the best berries dangle just six inches higher than you can reach.

If you find a good spot, and no one has beat you to it, you have to activate special berry sensors. The best berries often lurk just out of sight a few inches into the bush, so you have to “be with” the bush for a few minutes before your eyes calibrate on your tender targets. Your fingertips ever-so-gently palpate each berry to feel if it’s plump enough to pluck.

But no grabbing! Carefully rock the berry off its stem. If it resists at all, it’s not ready. If one of the drupelets near the stem is still red, the berry will be sour. Leave it. (A berry is made up of a collection of fleshy drupelets, each one encasing a seed.)

Retrieving berries without ruining your clothes or shredding your skin is where the dance comes in. Counter-intuitively perhaps, it’s best to wear a short-sleeved T-shirt (unless you’re picking at dusk when the mosquitoes are out).  This way you can snake your arms into the bush past the thorns without getting snagged in a bunch of fabric.  It’s a dance.

Time stops because you can think of nothing else when you’re picking berries. You have to be totally present to do the dance without getting hurt. You have to be totally present to sense and corral your prey. And finally, if the briar-patch is big enough, the quest keeps on, and on, and on.

“Just this one more cluster…”

“Oh, and THIS cluster… ”

Once a season, I make my favorite dessert of all time: blackberry cobbler. Served warm with vanilla ice cream. Omigod.

I freeze most of the berries, though, so I can enjoy them on my cereal through the long winter, reminding me that summer will come again.

Props for crops

Prop: n. something that holds up or sustains

Pole bean props - with twine

Pole bean props - with twine

With the help of my ex, I’ve created the necessary support systems for my bean-crop-to-be. Two 7′ pieces of scrap wood and four screws (cost $2.48) are now screwed to my raised bed, and soon the vines will be hauling ass up the strands of twine till they’re way out of my shrimpy reach at harvest time.

My family is famous (in our tiny circle of string bean fans anyway) for our Blue Lake pole beans. My parents grew so many that I swear my mom spent her entire summer slicing them (on the diagonal, if you please) and blanching them for a freezer full.

I’m not big on frozen beans but I make a mean dilly bean.

—–

Other crop prop projects:

My ex and I also encased my four LOADED blueberry bushes in a cage of bird-proof netting. The bushes are about six feet tall and at least that wide. This year I’m going to have to borrow freezer space again because my freezer will be berried out by mid-July.

I’ve encased my tomatoes in cages, which they will overrun within a month. Why do they make them so wimpy?

Finally, my ancient grape arbor is tottering under the weight of an unusually hyperactive vine. I’m going to be inundated come September. Maybe this year I’ll figure out an easier way to make raisins… (wine??). Meanwhile, after hacking back the grasping tendrils, I harvested a bag full of tender grape leaves I’ll try brining.

grape arbor

Pink peonies

Pink: adj. a color blend of  red and white

Peony: n. a flowering plant native to Asia, southern Europe and western North America. Most are herbaceous perennial plants about 3′ tall, but some are woody shrubs up to 6′ tall. They have compound, deeply lobed leaves, and large, often fragrant flowers, ranging from red to white or yellow, which bloom in late spring and early summer. They love it here in the Pacific Northwest.

Yesterday a friend brought me an amazing bouquet of pink peonies from her garden when she came over for lunch. These are peonies with profuse petal and perfume power.

Peony petals

Peony petals

The fragrance from this glorious bouquet perfumes my whole entry area:

From Flossie's garden

From Flossie's garden

Petals

Petals: n. part of the corolla of a flower, often brightly colored.

My tulips are spectacular right now. Here they are amassed:

Tulips - Daydream, Silverstream and others

Tulips - mainly Daydream & Silverstream - (anenomes behind)

And here are some petals that fell off a tired arrangement:

tulip-petals1

petals2

Prime time for Plant Pests

Prime: adj. first in time, first in significance

Plant: n. vegetation

Pest: n. a plant or animal detrimental to humans or human concerns (as agriculture or livestock production)

Plant Pest invading my asparagus bed.

Plant Pest invading my asparagus bed.

I posted this unidentified plant pest last week and asked for help identifying it, so I could figure out how to attack it.

A sharp-eyed reader suggested that my plant pest was actually a lovely wildflower known as the marsh marigold or cowslip (Caltha palustris).  And indeed the picture looked right.

But the description of its behavior didn’t match. The marsh marigold stays green all summer; mine disappears by June. The marsh marigold isn’t considered invasive.

Mine is DEFINITELY invasive. It’s not just in my asparagus bed now, it’s cozying up to a rose bush and I just found a plant in the midst of my ground cover by the front door.

I googled “marsh marigold” and “invasive” together and bingo! What is flourishing in my yard is the Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria). In the olden days it was known as “pilewort” and used to treat hemorrhoids (piles) because its tubers looked like them. (Well, it made medical  sense back then…)

Removal will take persistence over several years because it spreads by every possible means: stem nodes AND seeds AND  deeply rooted tiny tubers. The tubers are attached to the plant by the slimmest of long root hairs, and when you dig you break the root hairs and the tubers just smirk in their dark hiding places.

Despite my normally organic practices I’m going to hit it with Roundup tomorrow – giving it 24 hours to be absorbed to the roots (I hope), and then I’m going to do my best to rout them with my shovel. Wish me luck.

President OKs peas; nixes beets in his garden

President: n. the tall skinny guy who’s trying to put the country back on its feet.

Peas: n. the small edible seeds or seedpods of the legume Pisum sativum

Packets of Power! by Kerstin Anna-lise

Healthier than Peas! Photo by Kerstin Anna-lise

The local food activists like Alice Waters evidently got through to Michelle Obama. The First Family is putting in a vegetable garden at the White House – the first since Eleanor Roosevelt planted a victory garden in WW II.

Tomorrow they’ll begin digging up the south lawn for a garden that will not only provide some fresh veggies for the Obamas, but also serve as a demonstration garden for visitors, especially school children.

They’re planting peas, and lots of lettuces and greens, but the president has decreed “No beets!” because he doesn’t like them.

Michelle, are you going to let him get away with that??

He may not like (super-healthy) beet bulbs, but I bet he’d like their yummy greens. And what kind of example is “I don’t like beets!” for his kids?  They should learn to try everything.  Indeed, is there any reason Michelle and the kids shouldn’t enjoy beets when Daddy is traipsing around the country doing the People’s Business??

Come on Michelle, don’t let him off the beet hook.

La Primavera in Posy Portraits

Primavera: n. the Italian word for the season of Spring. In French it’s le printemps.

Posy: n. flower

Picture: n. a pictorial or graphic representation

Peppercress (pesky edible weed) and Daffodils

Peppercress (pesky edible weed) and Daffodils

My birthday is March 21, which I consider the first day of spring, although this year the equinox actually falls on the 20th. No matter.

When I was a child growing up in New England, I always hoped it would snow for my birthday, because in late March the ground was usually an ugly mixture of mud and dirty clumps of old dehydrated snow.

Now, in the verdant Pacific Northwest, plants are actually beginning to bloom, even if the rain persists. These are some of the P-posies I found in my yard today:

Pussy willow

Pussy willow

Primroses in the rain

Primroses in the rain

Peony sprouts

Peony sprouts

Pieris japonica

Pieris japonica

Patterns in moss

Patterns in moss

Plant Pest invading my asparagus bed.

Plant Pest invading my asparagus bed.

I don’t know what this last plant is… it’s invasive. It grows from tiny bulblets deep in the soil which are attached to the plant by a threadlike root which instantly breaks if you try to dig or pull the plant.  And Roundup doesn’t faze it either.  This is a problem I need to solve! Any ideas?

Poking thru the dirt: signs of spring

Poke: v. to pierce, jab or cause to project

The temperature has been hovering around 32 degrees for more than a week, and it’s that damp chill that makes you want to stay indoors with a cup of hot chocolate. (Shouldn’t have written that… it’s giving me a hankerin’.)

But aside from getting the sludge out of your veins, it pays to take a walk in late January. We’ll start with my own yard. Daffodils beginning to poke thru the dirt:

daffodils poking up

Then on this morning’s walk at Salmon Creek I noticed the hazelnut catkins were emerging:
catkins

And here the late afternoon sun shines through the Douglas firs in Whipple Creek Park:
Whipple Creek Park

“How can I keep from singing…”

Parsnips, potatoes and peas: the President’s garden? (Updates)

Parsnip: n.  (Pastinaca sativa) is a root vegetable related to the carrot. Parsnips resemble carrots, but are paler than most of them and have a stronger flavor. They are native to Eurasia and have been eaten there since ancient times.

Potato: n. a starchy, tuber (Solanum tuberosum) of the Solanaceae family.  Potato is the world’s most widely grown tuber crop, and the fourth largest food crop in terms of fresh produce after rice, wheat, and corn.

Peas: n. the small spherical seeds or the seed-pod of the legume Pisum sativum. Although treated as a vegetable in cooking, it is botanically a fruit.

parsnip

Alice Waters has a(nother) grand idea: the President and Michelle Obama should establish and eat from a bounteous organic garden on the White House grounds.

In 1971 Alice co-founded the world-famous restaurant, Chez Panisse, less than a mile from my former home in Berkeley, California. Alice has been cooking, preaching and teaching “Local, Fresh, Seasonal, Organic” foods ever since, and is credited by many as the force behind America’s culinary revolution.

When my daughter attended King Jr. High, she was bringing home math word problems that favored candy, cookies and donuts to be multiplied or divided. The school lunch program depended on high fat commodity foods (vegetables??? that was the era of Reagan calling ketchup a vegetable!).  As a public health educator I decided something needed to be done. I consulted with the food service on healthier menus, worked in the classroom with the kids to expose them to new more healthful foods, and with the teachers to incorporate healthier foods in the math problems.

Improvements were very slight during my daughter’s school days, but I like to think I opened the door, because a few years later, Alice (with MUCH more clout than I) came in and proposed that the school install a big vegetable garden, the “edible schoolyard“, so that kids would have a very direct experience of working in the garden, being responsible for their crops, and learning to cook and eat them.  It was and is an amazing project, copied now in a number of other schools around the country.

So back to the President’s vegetable garden. I will go on record here to say that if Alice is on the case, it’s as good as done.

The next level, which will be more challenging to pull off, involves a major reworking of the USDA, the government’s incestuous involvement with agriculture (aka the giant corn, soy, beef, and pig producers). Another big gun from my home town, Michael Pollan, is on the case.

Pollan is a professor of journalism at UC Berkeley and best-selling author of such stupendous reads as Botany of Desire, Omnivore’s Dilemma, and In Defense of Food (and what a writer! what fascinating material, what an original mind, and he’s even funny… you can probably tell I heart Michael Pollan).

Pollan’s idea, which he wrote about at length in the New York Times Magazine before the election, is that the President (“the Farmer-in-Chief”) needs to create  Department of Food – which will concern itself with re-localizing the nation’s food supply, making agriculture practices environmentally sustainable, and re-introducing Americans to real food (as opposed to food products) and cultural food practices, like -OMG! – families eating meals together.

Obama did read the article, and responded to it in an interview with Time Magazine‘s Joe Klein.

I’m still not holding my breath for the parsnip to be on the president’s plate, although it’s might tasty in a mix of roasted root veggies.

Update 1/23/09: Check out the videos at Eat the View’s website on the proposed presidential parsnip-pea-potato patch. “This Lawn is Your Lawn” and “The Garden of Eatin'”  [P is for Puns… note to self: compile a post on puns – nominations accepted.]

Update 3/16/09: Check out the story about Alice as the “Mother of the Slow Food Movement” in the NY Times and definitely watch the video links listed in the last paragragh of her interview on Sixty Minutes. She makes a MEAN breakfast.