Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Botanic garden, Kousa dogwood, and kicking the shut-in habit

Photo of a Seattle bungalow in fall or winter, by Wonderlane, Flickr Creative Commons license.
One of the things I’ve learned in the past 10 days: When in a dark, rainy place without the need to leave home for work, and while living in a lovely Arts & Craft house, well-insulated and well-gardened, it’s easy to become a sleepy shut-in.

But, here at the housesit house, I’m leaving my slumber. I’m happy to say that soon I start a copywriting contract gig at an ecommerce company. Also, I’ve done some political canvassing.

Here’s to the vigorous productivity and growth that follow any plant’s necessary dormant period, right? Ha.

And, as we watch those flood waters slowly recede from New Jersey and New York—where I once lived, have dear friends, and remember well the turn of the streets and sounds of people’s voices—it’s good to know progress occurs.

(Last night I ordered a pizza and specified the “South Philly,” in honor of areas affected by Hurricane Sandy. Because it’s the least I could do, the “Brooklyn Bridge” was more expensive, and I figured I could add my own bell peppers, after all.)

Photo of pizza by Arnold Gatilao, Flickr Creative Commons license
On an active weekend recently, I took a field trip to Kruckeberg Botanic Garden. It's a 4-acre public garden in a north Seattle suburb, founded as a private garden in 1958 by
husband-and-wife botanists and horticulturists Arthur Kruckeberg and his wife Mareen. 

The place has more than 2,000 plant species, collected over 50 years.

Kruckeberg, a University of Washington botanist for decades, is known in regional horticulture circles for ground-breaking writing about Pacific Northwest and Western native plants.

His book, Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest (UW Press, 1996), is a comprehensive primer considered enviable by many regions.

The fact is, West Coast bio-climates are unique on the North American continent. They vary widely according to proximity to mountains, valleys, and the Pacific and other water -- and much of the contemporary planting research has taken place since the 1950s, including Sunset magazine’s Sunset Western Garden Book and Dr. Kruckeberg’s research.

What I mean is, these people have done important work -– so I looked forward to seeing Kruckeberg Garden. It has about 30% native plants and 70% exotics.

On a Sunday bus schedule, I took the bus to a spot five blocks east of the garden. I didn't realize that the blocks were long and terraced, descending toward Puget Sound’s Richmond Beach. The views of the Sound were pretty, but the streets were curving and sometimes steep. Luckily, no disabilities hindered my trip. (To those who go later: It's possible to transfer to a bus that travels further down the hill, then walk a level street to the garden.)

Plants seen along the way:

Pacific crabapple. I had been on the lookout for these, with their trademark oval shape. They are smaller than crabapples from some other regions – each an inch or less in length. They had rosy sides, and grew on trees in front of an elementary school. I’ve read that crabapples can vary from tree to tree; these had an unripe, bland taste. I collected a few, in case they’re better in jam mixed with berries.

Photo of (clockwise from top) spindletree (inedible), crabapple (edible), magnolia (inedible), and rose hip (edible), by Leslie Seaton, Flickr Creative Commons license. 

Red huckleberry bushes, with their light, multi-leveled grace, grew by someone’s mailbox. Unlike in most places around here, huckleberries still remained on the branches. They were next to the usual salal ground cover, which grows everywhere in the Northwest.

Photo of red huckleberries by waferboard, Flickr Creative Commons license.
An apple tree in a front yard was hung heavily with large apples. They were rosy and buoyant, indicative of the plenty that is everywhere if we let nature grow.

After winding down the hill and past many houses, I found myself outside the garden and its small, almost residential-sized parking lot.

Trees clustered gracefully at the lot’s edges. A Kousa dogwood, native to Asia, had fruit caught on slender limbs. Each was a small red sphere flecked with bumps. The flavor is mild; I’ve eaten several more since then, and their taste has grown on me. They are light-weight, white inside, and remind me of the light sponginess and look of a cerimoya.

Photo of Kousa dogwood fruit (not yet fully ripe/red), by liz west, Flickr Creative Commons license. 

Keep in mind that Kruckeberg Garden is a small public garden, not a standard-sized city arboretum. Once you're there, the trail passes MsK nursery, where native plants are sold -- then descends a slope to a spacious lower garden. This lower area is part statuary and setting for restful glades, and part labeled plants and trees. If you go, check out the online walking tour.

On the slope above the lower garden, a 100-foot-tall Giant Sequoia towers. It inspires awe, with a 20-foot trunk that fans wide like a woman’s hips at its base and becomes narrower higher on the trunk. This tree was transplanted to the garden by the Kruckebergs in 1958 as a six-foot sapling. Now it is the height of a 10-story building, and towers gloriously, with branches fanning like so many umbrella spines up its trunk.

Next time, when it isn’t raining, I’ll see more of the garden. I’ll look for the birds, since more than 40 species are found there, and because the garden is free of herbicides and uses organic fertilizers.

It's worth it for the sequoia alone.

Photo of a Giant Sequoia (taken at California's Kings Canyon NP) by upsilon andromadae, Flickr Creative Commons license.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Wintergreen, and the limits of domesticity, in the Bewitched Garden

Photo of wintergreen plants by Robert Benner, Flickr Creative Commons license.
Today is my first day of housesitting at Bewitched Garden, in the north suburbs of Seattle. My friends, who gave their house that name because of its intricate back-yard garden, have departed for the marketplaces and fresh SIM-cards of the former Byzantium.

I'm in a house packed with good fiction, a shy, basement-dwelling gray cat, two small dogs (one with tall, fringed ears that leap in his friendliness, the other pint-sized and barking to ward me off, the new intruder), and an unfamiliar microwave.

First thing this morning, coffee was in order. Preparing to re-heat some left in an urn by the airport-scramblers, I tapped a button that read “microwave” (it apparently does other things: toast, de-frost, broadcast CBC…) on the electronic box above the stove. The printed screen immediately suggested, “Bacon?”

Ah, a non-Kosher microwave. These things usually start with “popcorn,” but figuring I’d go with the flow, I pressed “forward." The machine queried, “Center cut?” -- becoming pressing in its specificity. 

High-grade pork, it wanted. Okay, I said. Forward arrow, again. 

The screen had a further inquiry: “1-2 slices?”

Not for the noncommittal, steamed-vegetables substituted by Lipton-in-a-cup, microwave-user, this machine.

I pressed “yes” and watched as my coffee mug rotated.

The oversized crockery mug, its side painted with holly branches and kilned to a matte, bas-relief finish, made me think: Perhaps I too should have such mugs.

In my scrappy way, with my un-updated apartment and thrift-store items, perhaps I wasn’t setting myself up for success. I’m setting my goals too low, I reflected to myself over my good coffee, looking at the screen of the PowerMac as I typed.  

I thought about how European houses and Turkish apartments are smaller, the beds narrower, the luxuries decreased. At the same time, I realized: Yes, but our culture (and most contemporary ones) is about the small things that make us feel settled in a place. 

The house is a 1928 bungalow. It has lovely windows and well-restored interiors. Its details are subtle, design-aware. On the back doorstep, tiny painted stones and rounds of mirror balance near a railing. They’re something to look at, meant to catch the light.

I woke this morning with light at the fine, square-set windows, each placed just where I would have it in the 1928 walls. Around me were soft, many-thread-count sheets, several pillows, and a warm and fluffy comforter.

Through the open windows, the sounds of birds singing and calling drifted up from trees and the pine-needled ground. Conifers could be seen through the shades.

I live in Seattle, but not in a place where I can sit in a garden, hear birdcalls, or smell conifers.

My home is walking distance from nearly everything exciting in the city, in my point of view. It’s a short walk from museums, urban parks, and much people-watching. It is near coffee houses and art spaces and interesting little night clubs.

This morning I sat with my coffee at an iron-work table in the Bewitched Garden.

It was clear, even there, that some things are always about perspective. I had a choice of two garden tables, one near the center of the patio, the other larger but stacked with outdoor chair-cushions under an umbrella.

Trying out the table without cushions, I realized that this section of yard was lower, more seeped by Seattle morning damp. A bit to the left, under the umbrella, the air was lovely and I leaned back with my mug.

Wintergreen plants grew near the table, I knew. My friend had instructed me to keep an eye out for them. She’d often had wintergreen as a child in Michigan. “It tastes like gum,” she said, this morning, before they scrambled for their late-arriving taxi.

The garden is indeed bewitched, its paths meandering like a country stream. They begin on the left side of the yard and pass a trellised grape vine, beds of violets and something like wild ginger, and a slender tree that might be a peach tree (it doesn’t produce, I’m told). 

In addition, there are Japanese maples with their starry fall foliage, a shed in the corner, an iron bed-stead around which plants poke and grow, a few plaques and signs, a thin iron canopy over a bench -- its supports hung with a sparkly-sided lamp with a lavender bulb, herb gardens in squares, trellised wisteria, a side garden, and three gnarled apple trees set like benign witches around the yard.

I look forward to exploring the garden, and its wintergreen. 

Photo of single wintergreen berry by Nicholas_T, Flickr Creative Commons license.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Wild Vitamin C, Feeling Brighter in Dark Weather

Photo of rose hips and water drop on fence, by Karl-Ludwig G. Poggeman, Flickr Creative Commons license. **

Yesterday was a dark, Northwest fall day. The sky and the air were the color of middle-grade slate.

To me, this weather is a bit like having hot weather all the time, or truly frigid weather all the time -- one gets tired of it. Also, cloudy weather lacks drama. Days like yesterday fail to provide the comfort of furrowed clouds before a snowstorm, or the excitement of racing clouds before a thunder-shower.

Here the entire day, morning to actual nightfall, has the light quality of 6:30 p.m. in winter. And it's considered very routine.

Thus, this afternoon I decided to do cheery things. I’d exercise and go to a busy, brightly lit space – a large library. I’d walk in the crowds, use the Internet, listen to indie power-pop bands on earphones. 

(If you’re wondering, I listened to The Bears, Mates of State, Two Door Cinema Club, Tennis, Matt & Kim, and some things that came up randomly on Pandora.)

These things helped enormously. I felt socialized, cheerful. However, I’d told myself that I’d also go to a park and do plant-ID-ing.

But the minute I set foot outside the bright library, I thought, “Oh, why leave the light?”

I'd decided, though: I would see which plants were turning color. I’d take the bus to the East Side suburbs.

Nightfall approached as I reached Kirkland a half hour later.  The dark weather had brought it on earlier – and the days were getting shorter.   

In a park near the bus stop I found rows of salal plants and pulled off handy clusters of the round, dark berries. Some were dried but flavorful, like slightly grainy raisins. Round, fresh ones burst with flavor. I loved them. It was great to find them still around, late in the season, too.
Photo of salal leaves and blossoms by La.Catholique, Flickr Creative Commons license.

Pure usefulness must be why the Scottish horticulturist/explorer David Douglas took salal back to the UK for use in English gardens. He knew a good shrub when he saw it!

Around a corner, the bright orange and red urn shapes of rose-hips burst from dark shrubbery. Roses gone by! They were large, which is handy because it means more orange flesh for each mass of seeded insides.

Reaching for a large, dark-red one, I bit it and chewed its softness, feeling the immediate pop of Vitamin C and of consuming wild nature on a dark day. Everything seemed to brighten around me.

A man in his 30s passed and asked in surprise, “Is that a…tomato?” I told him what it was – he nodded, knowing what a rose hip was. “Vitamin C!” I said. He laughed and passed on toward the grocery store. 

Photo of rose hips in profile against white sky by Duncan Harris, Flickr Creative Commons license.

Now massed in a bag for making jelly are about a pound of rosehips, their flesh orange and red, their furled leaf ends curling friskily.

As full dark came on, the orange rose hips could just barely be made out, springing out from the abundant shrubs. Plenitude and brightness in the dark. 


So, that was Saturday. Sunday dawned much brighter, the sky white instead of dark-gray.  I’ve seen the contrast and observed enough to be glad for the light in the day.

It's also nice to have those pretty rose hips in the refrigerator. Now, to get some cheesecloth or a jelly

Photo of rose hips in a glass bowl by Wonderlane, Flickr Creative Commons license.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Five-hundred fifty apples

Photo of organic jonagold apples by Floodllama, Flickr Creative Commons license.

Sometimes we just yearn to see things that aren't in our region. This weekend is the Harvest Festival at Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, and I'm a little envious that my friend G. is going.

After all, Seed Savers is an organization that preserves and showcases heirloom seed types, and on their 890-acre property in northeastern Iowa's limestone hills, they have 550 types of apples. That's a mind-boggling number of apples, for those of us who are impressed when we see, say, 25 types at a farmer's market.

Seed Savers has apples with names such as Fameuse, ‘Minkler Molasses, Swayzie, and Knobbed Russet. Isn't that worth the trip alone?

I've been interested in Seed Savers since I read Gathering: A Memoir, about the couple who started Seed Savers in their house in the late 1970s.

I'm hoping that G. will bring back some photos of apples! If anyone else is in the area, let me know about it!

Vine maple color; Sitka Mountain-ash berries

Photo of vine maples by Yaquina, Flickr Creative Commons license.

Sunday’s hike was golden in many ways. Its drive was overly long, and a foot was sprained on root-y trails. But it involved an isolated alpine lake, fall color bursting from rocky slopes, and the round, un-glossy delights of farm-stand apples brought from the town of Sultan.

The hike was to Hope Lake, in the Cascades near Stevens Pass. In less than two miles each way, we climbed over 1400 feet in elevation.  This meant it was fairly steep, and traversed narrow stretches of eroding trail above steep hillsides.

The colors were startling, though. On hillsides above us, vine maples raced across the landscape in yellow and red.

Photo of vine maples against forest by David Patte, USFW, Flickr Creative Commons license.

Expecting the dense, dark woods of the typical Northwest hike, I’d forgotten that we might be dazzled by the light and color changes of autumn. Some ferns and airy huckleberry bushes had also turned vividly yellow and orange.

As we hiked the narrow incline, we passed out-of-season bushes bare of thimbleberries and salmonberries, and I noted them for later. That said, those two are nearly everywhere in the region. But the raspberry-like thimbleberries are especially nice. I also like them because they remind me of the flat, wide buttons on 1950s coats.

Along the ground, bunchberry plants bore their red berries atop the four leaves. I ate one – only my second ever – and noted that this time, the grainy taste went down easier. This one tasted deeper and more sun-warmed, and I thought to myself that they'd be fine added to other berries to make jam.

Photo of bunchberries in dew by Pellaea, Flickr Creative Commons license.

In Samuel Thayer’s book Nature’s Garden, one of my favorite foraging guides, he talks fondly of bunchberry. The berries grow in cool, northern forests, including Thayer's native Great Lakes region.

We reached Hope Lake, which is really a pond. It appears shallow, and is backed by tall evergreens  -- probably hemlocks and Douglas-firs. Hope seemed more peaceful than the other lakes I’d seen in the Cascades’ Alpine Lakes Wilderness. This was the first time that the lakeshore was silent; no one was there, nor calling out as they ate their lunches.
Lakes in the backcountry of Yellowstone are quiet like this, too. This pond in the Cascades was like Grebe Lake or others circled by huckleberry bushes that I saw when I was a new hiker, a kid from a hot climate working at the park during college summers.  At the time, my heart raced when I saw fields of berries at a remote lake. Where were the bears? Were they watching?

Photo of Sitka mountain-ash turning color, by heystax, Flickr Creative Commons license.

At Hope Lake, two weeks had passed since I'd been to one of the Alpine Lakes. Before, we'd seen only green and somber woods, but now, red and yellow huckleberry bushes and Sitka mountain-ash crowded the lakeshore, their colors splashed across the water surface.

Even late in the season, when most of the huckleberries had been picked clean of their fairy bushes, the mountain-ash was laden with bunches of red berries.

Sitka mountain-ash berries can make wine, I hear -- alhough I haven't tried it yet. It was great to see such plenty, to know that for every departed salmonberry, thimbleberry, or huckleberry, something new came with fall: something bright and wonderful.

 Photo of Sitka mountain-ash by Tim Green, Flickr Creative Commons.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Rediscovering a friend on a bus; gooseberries

Photo of red currants by Liz West (Muffet), Flickr Creative Commons license.

Yesterday on a bus to Seattle’s Eastside suburbs, there was something familiar about the older woman sitting next to me, and the copy of the New Yorker that she was poring over.

Surreptiously, I checked out her eye-glasses. Had I seen them before? Had her hair been that exact shade?
I wasn’t sure, you see, whether she was the lady whose seat I'd shared a month and a half before, on the return trip from an Eastside park where I’d gathered a bag of golden plums so ripe that some fell off their pits en route. 

On that bus ride, my new buddy and I had talked avidly about politics, Harper’s magazine articles after 9/11, her war-protest activities downtown, and gathering edible plants. We had even exchanged email addresses, but I couldn’t recall whether I’d contacted her. It had slipped between the cracks of looking for possible roommates, considering whether to relocate to a sunnier city, and finishing out the field notebook I'd been using that week.
Yesterday, I decided I would lose out if I kept silent. When she had turned away from her New Yorker pages to look at me, her face changed and she smiled. “Well,” she said in her slight English accent, “Can we believe this?” We had indeed met on that previous bus trip, going the opposite direction.
It was great to see her again. This is what I like about talking with people about plants and gathering: Standing alongside a trail in any quiet park, I’ve met inquiring people who can either tell me more about the plants I see, or about the land where we stand, or who have questions for me. In every case, I have felt the sparkle of exchanging vital, life-giving information with another person -- and learning a bit about them.
Was I gathering plums again? my friend asked on the bus, then smiled to acknowledge that she had remembered: Right, plums were no longer around, weeks later.
Not this time, I said: Going hiking. As I flipped through a field guide I’d brought, Trees & Shrubs of Washington, by C.P. Lyons (Lone Pine Publishing, 1999), my friend said that she’d like to see gooseberries around, that she missed the days when they were considered standard pie material, especially in England.
I'd also like to see gooseberry pie early and often. Gooseberries and currants are about and they're being used, I said – although it’s true that they’re not the commonplace pastry material they once were. These days they aren’t standard; they’re pleasingly retro.
Still, I’d seen both berry types sold at mid-summer in the standard grocery store near my house. The farm name on the boxes, when Googled, turned out to be in Washington’s Yakima Valley.  It's an area known for its berry farms. The farms, it turns out, are supported by a network of irrigation systems that carry water from mountain snow-melt.
At a farmers’ market I’d talked with another farmer from the Yakima Valley, who said that his family grew blueberries in the soil, which was rich from age-old volcanic activity in the area. “The blueberries love it,” he assured me, shaking his head. I imagine that the gooseberries and currants do, too.
On the bus, my friend and I looked at photos of gooseberry and currant bushes in Trees & Shrubs of Washington. “That’s it!” she said happily.
In the same park where I’d picked the golden plums, I’d gathered a few currants and gooseberries that grew nearly pushed out by over-eager blueberies, I told her. I grew up in a warm climate, one with its warmer types of berries, like dewberries -- so I had been excited about picking blueberries, and especially marveled at the currants and gooseberries. 
It was a fine bus ride to have before a hike: Rediscovering gooseberries. My friend said, "Have a good hike," as I headed off. We decided we'd meet again.

Photo of black currants in a bowl (these are like the ones I found in the Eastside park, though mine were smaller) by Glen Fleishman, Flickr Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Host a Fall Food Swap? Fundraiser for Food Swap Network

Photo of orange marmalade in jars by Comedy_nose, on Flickr Creative Commons license

So, ever attended a food swap? I plan to go to my first swap this fall. Pals here in Seattle gather with friends to swap their canned goods, baked items, and other goodies (beer, elderberry wine, infused alcohol, truffles, you name it). It's also a great way to share garden excess, by bringing along a basket of zucchini or whatever's left. It sounds great.

I became aware of food swaps a few years ago, when I joined the Facebook group for Food in Jars and began hearing about swaps in Philadelphia. Because I lived in Philadelphia for the summer of 2005 and I liked it a lot, I always pay attention to Philly news. It was great to hear swaps were active there, though I wasn't surprised.

Now I hear from Hip Girl's Guide to Homemaking that the Food Swap Network (which spans the U.S., Canada, and overseas) is holding a fundraiser, and we can help out by hosting (or attending) a swap before November 30th. Swap hosts are asked to collect donations from swappers for the network. 

Kate Payne, Hip Girl's blogger, lists handy suggestions for swaps here: Annette’s Urban Farm Handbook challenge post.

Here's some background information: The Food Swap Network currently has 90 swaps and is growing every day. The fundraiser will help cover the costs of creating a network site and making it a functional and attractive resource for existing and new swappers. Plan is, the fundraiser will cover five years of operations for the network. 

Here's how to help: Host or attend a fall swap! Swaps can take place anytime before November 30th. Swap hosts are asked to collect donations from swappers. If every swap raises at least $45, which is about $2.50 per person for a small swap, the network will make its goal.  In any case, any amount swappers provide will help to reach the goal. 

Donations can be sent by PayPal after you've had your swap, or contact the network if you'd like to mail FSN a check. Here’s a link to contribute directly to Food Swap Network if you are unable to host or attend a swap this fall.

A last note from FSN:

"Thank you for helping us fill up our swap basket so we can continue to share that feeling of going home with a full basket of homemade goods!"
And, ah, isn't that a fine, fine feeling? Yes, I think so too.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Found: Berries and Salal on trail to Annette Lake


Photo of mountain lake by Henofthewood on Flickr Creative Commons license.

Saturday, a hike to Annette Lake in the Cascades with my friend E. We snacked along the way on clustered salal berries – and the occasional dusky blue or lightly red huckleberry on airy bushes.

The day was glorious: The last weekend in September, and still dry and sunny. This is unusual in the Northwest, but we’ll take it!

Back to berries, though. Admission: Until now, I’ve never really valued salal. Apparently that’s because I’d never had them fully, tip-top ripened to a dark navy, and on a sunny Cascade hillside.

They're an acquired taste: I asked E. what she thought, and she said questioningly, “Grainy, rough?”

Salal aren’t blueberries, I had to admit. They lack the easy charisma and bright flavor of more popular berries.
But in this case, to me, they were downright flavorful. There was a depth to them, a sun-warmed richness. I wanted pots full of them, I wanted pies and crumbles.
I was content with snacking, though. I gathered handfuls, each with its slightly hairy bulb and knobby end.

They were ugly enough to be left on their leathery leaf-branches for me to find on a sunny fall hike, and I loved them for it.

Photo of salal berries by Nordique on Flickr Creative Commons license

The berries provided moisture, Vitamins C and A, and the usual antioxidants as we headed up the 1600 feet of elevation change between the trail head and Annette Lake.
I found them refreshing, and I was grateful: When I arrived in Washington state, I often walked past these and other berries, not knowing what they were. My past is full of the slight irritation of not knowing berries or fruits on trees, of feeling as I pass them that I could be wasting something valuable that will go bad on the branch.

Eating the berries gave me the “I’m a hardy hiker, I’m like Heidi with the goats in the Swiss mountains,” thought pattern that I alternate with “I’m like Grizzly Adams; I can survive!” when I’m flattering myself. And yet, it was a little bit true.

After a good many switchbacks and walking past many majestic firs and spruce, E. and I made it to Annette Lake. It is a lovely lake, surrounded by wooded hillsides. I always like the peace of arriving at a mountain lake after a long hike, finding the cove in the woods that opens with light, spotlighted by the sun as a rare place, a place of water that attracts all of us: animals, humans, birds.

We had our lunches there, E. with her tuna sandwich and shelled pistachios and fruit leather, and me with my peanut-butter-and-banana pita, HoneyCrisp apple, and dark chocolate squares.

We sat in the sun on the grainy beach, facing the light of the water, watching circles form on the surface and talking about relationships and life and work, and listening to the calling voices of the fewer than 10 other people on other shores of the lake as they threw balls to retrievers and talked about we knew not what.

The water, just to fill you in, was probably pretty cold. Maybe surprisingly, I didn’t go in!

The sky was overcast when we arrived, and I had the recent memory of swimming two weeks ago in Mason Lake here in the Cascades, and finding that the water was not just limpid and chill, but downright bone-chilling.

I’d learned that although I’ll swim in large bodies of water in any temperature, in mountain lakes I prefer to dip when they are sun-warmed and it is high summer. Call me particular, call me someone who doesn't want to be chilled before a long hike in falling light, and you will be right.

Another thing we found: A king bolete mushroom, or porcini. Not exactly a feast, but we also talked to the Forest Service officers about logging roads that are handy for berries (and presumably for mushrooms).

There will be return trips, after all!