Archive for the ‘Gardening’ Category

Things Left

June 30th, 2009

One pilose and one squamous animal companion will not make the trip. Rather, whatever remains of their bodies will linger as we move from one Boston neighborhood to another shortly.

They are both real an symbolic. They are less substantial than the friends and acquaintances. They are less obvious than the flowers planted, the herb garden, and the children’s growth lines on the door jamb. Yet in the unwritten book of place memories, Tang and Igor have their pages.

I also ritualized my grandfather in the backyard. He had served as my father figure and being two generations older died far too soon, without being available to play with my children as he had with my older sister’s. For me, he was no longer available for to question and to bring disappointments and joys to his altar of wisdom. Yet it came to me as a variation of the Asian ancester shrines that I could place a locus for him within a few step.

He and my grandmother were buried in a small town along the Potomac, in the hills between West Virginia and Maryland. The Odd Fellows Cemetery is far less accessible. Instead, I placed a photo and a few artifacts in a tin, which I buried deep in the garden. He was gifted in his ability with both flowers and vegetables; I spent many summer days with him planting, weeding and harvesting.

In that sense, he has always been available for a chat.

For the animals, there is a clear bifurcation. Our first son had an iguana, a rather attractive critter, if not too cuddly. Igor died of the common arthritis as a juvenile. His corpse went deep under the roots of the gigantic beech.

Tang on the other hand was a delight for 15 years. A Maine coon cat that never reached the stereotypical gigantic proportions (altered early by contract with the breeder, so probably short on hormones), Tang had the delightful personality and even temperament of the breed. Three kids chased and handled  him, with no complaints. He was affectionate and seemingly ever grateful. He never broke anything nor leapt on tables.

Alas, as most of us will, he wore out. In his case, the vet was after us for some time to have him euthanized. His joints hurt and did not respond long to any medicine. He lost interest in both food and movement. Eventually, we let the vet do the kind and evil deed and buried Tang with his cat bed and blanket far down where we planted a cherry tree as a living marker.

Our small house, which I love and my wife long ago tired of, has the predictable memories. Each wall, sometimes literally, is awash with invisible residue of events and words and thoughts of the five of us and our visitors. I would suppose the new owner should exorcise us.

Yet, the animals and ancestor in the backyard will remain known to me. Leave taking will require yet another ritual.

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Just Ashes

June 15th, 2009

Ashes BoxWanda’s not here and she’s not in the box. You might say my mother has become furniture or un objet d’art.

It is, however, a fine box. I went shopping for one worthy of holding half my mother’s ashes and found it in a small town in New Hampshire.  Oddly enough, it was hand made and hand inlaid not there, but in Comanche County, Oklahoma. I was born there in Fort Sill Station Hospital.

My mother, of course, was there at the time, busy allowing me into the larger world. Now the buff, heavy ashes of half of her cremated remains are sealed in that box. The box sits on a bookcase in my home office, highly visible at waist height.

Four years on, it is past time to allow them into the larger world.

I did not ask for half of the remains and I would not have. Instead, a call from my brother-in-law in New Mexico informed me they were on the way. His wife, my sister, just knew I’d want them. She’d keep half and send the other to me. As I recall, when Richard told me of the pending delivery, my only response was, “Why?”

Zydeco legend spoke Clifton Chenier to my attitude of mortality with, “When you live, you live. When you’re dead, you’re gone.” On a higher plane, I can play Socrates, as recounted in Phaedo. While I don’t have his faith in an immortal individual soul, I concur with his conclusion when asked what he wanted them to do with him after his death. He said the they could do whatever they wanted with his body because he was not going to be there.

So wife and family can toss my remains or absentmindedly leave them in a fine constructed box — dust on both inside and outside — or bury them. That’s whatever suits their emotional state and needs.

Plato quoted Crito as asking the dying Socrates, ” And in what way shall we bury you?” The response included”

In any way that you like; but you must get hold of me, and take care that I do not run away from you…Be of good cheer then, my dear Crito, and say that you are burying my body only, and do with that whatever is usual, and what you think best.

My mother was of that thought, asking only that there be no funeral and minimal expense. She definitely did not want a burial plot and probably would not even have approved of the fancy box.

When the frightfully heavy bag of ashes arrived by UPS, I fretted. I turned to my sage, aged adviser, UU Minister Farley Wheelwright. Over the past seven decades, he’s buried and married quite a few folk, parishioners, friends, family and strangers. He set me straight immediately.

A Matter of Place

Farley said not to have even a passing thought that the content of the box was or had ever been my mother.  Instead, the ashes are just that. They are as symbolic as I choose but no more.

His own attitude about such matters is rather casual, even to himself. I stood in for him at a family funeral at nearby Forest Hills Cemetery here. There’s a spot in the same grave for his ashes as well, the last in that grave. He’s fine with that.

He did ask jocularly for me to drop by from time to time to visit. That seems to be the real utility of such burials, a locus.

Actually, I had created as much in my back garden many years ago for my beloved grandfather. I took a photo of him and a few small objects of his and buried them in a tin. He was a highly skilled gardener, equally of flowers, vegetables and fruits. He and I worked many summer days weeding and harvesting. Putting my version of him a few feet from the house was soothing.

He was my touchstone and ideal. He was always there for me when I was happy or troubled. Without judgment, he would answer, agree or discuss. I can still have one-sided conversations.

Now I think I need a trip to the Eastern panhandle of West Virginia. My mother and I each learned to swim in the South Branch of the Potomac. We each wandered the mountains surrounding Romney as youths and adults. Her ashes — half of her ashes — should become one with that symbolic home.

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Crawling Toward Good Food

May 4th, 2009

slowsnail.jpgIf Yuppies and DINKs and snooty suburbanites attach themselves to Slow Food®, that’s okay by the Italy-based HQ and equally fine with the NYC-based U.S. arm. On the one hand, the organization has noble and worthy goals; on the other, it has a deserved reputation as an elitist’s hallmark.

As a damned good cook and serious food lover, I am aligned with much of what SF seeks.  At its most basic, it is intended as an antidote for the fast-food culture and cuisine. As a relentless egalitarian, I have avoided them because of the cliquish reputation.

I dragged my 15-year-old to the recent lecture at the West Roxbury library as part of its elaborate food series of events. It did nothing to inspire either of us, certainly not to join SF at museum-membership prices ($75 a couple/$60 a person per year). Yet, I remain conflicted.

First note that SF Boston‘s events head, Nicole Nacamuli, is no sales type. “We don’t do a great job signing up new members,” she told the eight or so of us there. She was refreshingly candid, with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. She noted that there was a quarterly little SF magazine for members (online only for students), but “to get it is really not a reason to sign up.” Instead, she said that members do and should join because they believe in what SF does.

Snail Business

For those who ask what exactly SF is about, the list is plain and fitting the times. It includes:

  • Defense of Biodiversity. Identifying and saving foods, including animals, at risk from a culture of mass agriculture.
  • Taste Education. Everything from encouraging family meal preparation and enjoyment, to tastings and food workshops, school and college programs and co-programs with chefs. Also, SF also founded and runs the University of Gastronomic Science in Italy.
  • Linking Producers and Co-Producers.  From the local fair to the national product showcases and conferences, SF gets food professionals on the production and purchase sides as well as customer together to taste and become familiar with edible and potable offerings. 

At a higher level, SF has three catchphrases — good, clean and fair. That would be really enjoying your food, “created with care from healthy plants and animals,” biodiversity fostered with ecologically sound growth and harvest, and reasonable compensation for the food producers.

sflogo.jpgIn practice, we may also begin seeing the snail logo on restaurants that comply with SF’s mandates for food and wine produced in the right ways, ideally locally. (The SF site is really, really snotty about its trademark. I claim fair use here as educational illustration. )

Some European restaurants already sport the snail in the window to show their support for and practice of following SF’s aims and guidelines. Apparently, this is in the works for the United States as well. Nacamuli said that the Boston bunch has been talking with the NY folk. She doesn’t expect the first snails to appear for at least six months.

Who Can?

All that looks like good stuff. You may well wonder, what’s the problem?

Well, check here and then here for examples of the objections.

The short of it is that some SF advocates truly are snobs and the idle rich. Their conversations about food and wine can be just too precious. There was a family who wrote a book about eating locally for a year, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. Barbara Kingsolver’s book is a huge favorite of SF sorts. However, it would require having your own fertile farm in a temperate zone, no other responsibilities, and ideally a steady cash flow.

In short, that’s what some find flawed in the SF movement. At its extreme, it works for situations most of us cannot duplicate. We tend not to be filthy rich or we don’t own the family farm and vineyards. Many of us simply can’t afford U.S. prices for farmer’s market veggies and fruits, much less have the equipment, time and inclination to can, freeze, and dehydrate for the winter and spring. You’d be hard pressed to duplicate or even locate the small, agrarian communities where the range of goals is even obtainable.

Hence, there is some justification for sneering at what could be seen here as play for the wealthy who would use SF as more proof of their superiority.

But Wait

Most important, none of us has to do it all at once to support the SF ideals and practices. I’ll still go to the Haymarket and still use non-local veggies and fruits. Yet, being aware of the concepts and working toward them helps.

Let’s stay aware that most of us also have our own marks of status and form our elite subsets in this very wealthy nation. We may not be able to eat only self-grown and harvested local foodstuffs, but we tend to pride ourselves in our own specialness.

Consider religion. Episcopalians are about as wealthy as we come and have been since our early Presidents. Yet, while I live egalitarianism, I also am a Unitarian/Universalist. UUs are a privileged group as a whole…and blindingly white as well.

Otherwise, I live in Boston, which is has about as huge a pride of place as anywhere in the hemisphere. I’m a long-time Volvo driver, a dual symbol of New England and liberals.

It goes on and on. Some of us can’t get over a prep school or university. Others live in exclusive suburbs who lord of the unfortunate inner-city families. We each have our areas of irrational and divisive pride.

So, there’s no reason to suppose that status seekers would not use the SF movement. They have three or four dozen other cocktail-party bragging points as well.

That’s okay by me as well as by the SF groups. They do support the goals with their memberships and other contributions. They may even play gentleman farmer and grow plants for sustainable diversity. Good on them. Of course, we don’t have to stand around and listen to them tell us how wonderful and special they are.

In a counterpoint to the SF lecture, yesterday’s tour of Brook Farm in West Roxbury played off some of the same themes. It was a much richer presentation and a post for another day.

Among the similarities is that the utopian community of the pre-Civil War was founded by well-off elite sorts wanting to live an idealized agrarian existence. They were to rely on farming, selling their produce, and balancing the hard work with educational, recreational and philosophical activities. It only lasted six years and change and many historians call the social experiement an abject failure.

Yet, it inspired other such movements. Many of the participants also went on to found other movements and organizations, inspired by their goals at Ellis Brook.

The SF movement seems a lot better funded and not contingent on successful hard work of wealthy folk with little business experience. There’s much to be said of efforts toward worthy aims.

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Not Too Late Bloomer

April 28th, 2009

I could drag this floral metaphor around the house repeatedly. The damned amaryllis became the blessed spring beauty. After muttering disparagement at it for months, I smile at its garish beauty and no longer resent its tardiness.

We picked it up cheap at some home center and did right by it while it ignored our expectations. Potted, watered and in a sunny Southern window, the bulb sat inert for many months, looking for the world like a remnant of elephant garlic in the dirt.

The winter and even spring holidays passed slowly and without the flower. Stubbornly, I kept it moist through Christmas, New Year and Easter. Suddenly and inexplicably, it rewarded my not tossing it with the earlier seasons’ trappings by thrusting a thick stem up and smacking our eyes with three deep red blooms.amaryllis on table

Let’s not get into living up to your potential or comparisons with ourselves or our children. How many teachers and parents have been impatient with how many of us? Lackaday, we have been inadequate, at least on their schedules.

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So now, we have had crocuses and violets. Our forsythia bushes fairly scream, “Yellow!” The parrot tulips are in high contrast to the brown and black earth around them. Yet, they are all outside.

amaryllis stamen

Our reluctant red chum brings new life right before us indoors. I have instantly forgiven it for its delay. It was not a late bloomer, rather a right-time-for-it bloomer.

In fact, I can easily see buying several next year and staggering when I start forcing them to life. For sure, such color power can be welcome at the rate of one a month. We have lots of varied lights, ornaments, package wrappings and even silly sweaters to brighten our Christmas and winter.

Surprise Me, New England

April 17th, 2009

Placing two hands full of gym clothes in the basement washer this pre-dawn, I heard the deep hiss of the boiler. That tends to come on when the outside is 35 degrees.

A couple of minutes before, the cheerful radio new voice said highs in Boston today would be in the low 70s — a one-day burst of heat for us in April. In my simple-minded way, I amused myself saying that this New England weather takes some getting used to. We’ve lived here continuously for 29 years.

Perhaps it’s rationalization, but I think the notorious swings and surprises in the air, on the ground and in the water are positive for us locals. Our weather produces a level of awareness that might otherwise require t’ai chi or meditation.

While we can and too often do drone on about the current weather, that’s a human norm. In temperate areas, they have to struggle to note small variances. We literally just look up or feel the air.

I lived in Manhattan for a decade before moving here. There was a span of several years when numerous friends moved to or near Los Angeles for movie or TV jobs. More than once after hearing their laments about unchanging weather, I sent an envelope with autumn leaves of red, orange, yellow and pied mixtures. That didn’t give them temperature swings or snow, but they liked the relics and memories they brought.

Yet, temperate zone residents seem in general not to like airborne surprises. My father-in-law was born, raised and died in South Carolina. It was hot and humid half the year, but their two seasons hot/not as hot were consistent and predictable.

When he and my mother-in-law visited JP, he complained loud and often about the cold, the snow, the frost and the wind. At first, I thought he really hated the chill, but I finally realized that he wanted consistent weather. He had an engineering mind and wanted simple planning for his day, his whole day and his week. This heavy coat in the morning and shirt sleeves by 3 p.m. with raincoat or boots in the evening didn’t suit him.

In contrast, his wife was from Indiana and loved New England in the snow. She radiated enough to warm us all on trips to Vermont for walks in the snow through covered bridges and nights before the rental house fires. She loved the awareness that came with extremes and change.

Many Southern and West Coast locales brag of year-round green and moderate temperatures. As great as that is for landscaping and gardening, it tends toward producing lotus-eaters. My father, who was a Master Gardener as am I, flourished with his plants in Tacoma. Low levels of all-year moisture and little cold helped him grow almost anything and keep an unheated greenhouse in the back for specialty items. Here though, growing plants from seed is a pretty big deal and knowing when to sow in the soil is a gamble with a large piece of intuition.

Consider a long, straight road. Driving it brings instant comfort and familiarity. Yet no turns and unchanging geography can quickly lead to inattention and torpor. Single cars can wreck on such roads, drivers lulled by sameness.

I contend that the sport of weathering the Boston weather has virtues. I am sure it affects and even shapes the locals’ minds. Through regular irregularity, we must develop an appreciation of ambiguity, if not in philosophy at least in dress.

We have to be ready to scrape windshields and shovel front walks in May and sweat walking around the next afternoon or even the same day.

I recall when my oldest son was in nursery school and differentiation was a lesson that shaped his reality. The pre-primary school tots learned same and different at school and on Sesame Street. A regular delighted squeal in the school or playground was, “We have the same!” when they discovered a shared color, number of items, or even similar dessert.

The awareness of and joy in seeing the same, in experiencing the predictable quickly turns into monotony. For a teen or adult, it’s more often the oh-crap moment at the same dinner, TV reruns, repetitious radio playlists, or another day with exactly the same weather as the one before and the one before and the one before.

Like cross-training at the gym, a bit of scrambling to weigh various daily forecasts, guess when you can transplant seedlings safely, or tucking the windbreaker and umbrella in the briefcase are flexibility aids. Geriatric expert have long recommend that we keep up both mental and physical challenges, down to crosswords and playing an instrument, so we keep our minds and emotions in shape as we age.

Too much sameness is at once soothing and deadening. New Englanders do just fine with our constant weather surprises and twists…perhaps because of them.

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Living Traces

April 8th, 2009

Pat is gone, but not gone. Our neighbor to the East died a couple of years ago, but her plantings linger. forsythia

While our border forsythia are thinking about blooming, but not quite committed, the crocuses are figuratively and literally in their element. They are also mocking the slumbering day lilies. Those flaming, towering bullies will soon crowd the short and delicately colored crocuses out of their shared bed. Meanwhile, we can see who staked claim first.lily bed

Pat and her brother John lived next door and had long before we arrived. Their mother shared the house at the end of her life and was known for daily washing hung on a pulley line out her window. Among the three of them, Pat was the fit one and surprised us with her sudden death. She was short and chubby but active. She also bowled several nights a week and moved agilely. She went the right way, quickly and apparently painlessly, just dropping dead.

She has not been gone long, but shortly before she went, she planted many dozens, I guess hundreds, of crocuses in her and her brother’s yard and around the forsythia on the border between us. Each bush is awash in spring color before the yellow buds open. If only they made sound instead of color, this would be the brass fanfare.

volunteer crocusesThe area adjacent to the bushes was Pat’s in another way. She planted herself as well, sitting and sunning almost every possible afternoon in a webbed lawn chair in the driveway. She’d read, greet passersby, and commune with Woodbourne’s outside.

My wife and I agreed that we often expect to walk or drive up the street and see her there. In some ways, she is.

Attack on My Beloved Haymarket

October 27th, 2008

Even after college time here and 29 adult years living in Boston, I can be casual or cynical about my town. Yet in a foray into Rochester, New York, I was crushed to find a local institution outdone.

They haapples.jpgve a better Haymarket thingummy there. I am happy for my son, who started college there, but I hate it, hate it.

The apples to the right were in the Rochester market. Multiple varieties from a local orchard were there for the choosing.

Twenty-nine years ago, in a Snugli on my chest, my first born son started my weekly trips to Blackstone Street with me. Over many years, my other two sons and sometimes my wife have gone. I always have.

Starting when we lived on the Hill, I have been an early-morning spirit floating among the stalls. While I have come in a few afternoons for absurd bargains, like a flat of 24 pints of cherry tomatoes for $2, which I use as a pasta sauce base, skimmed for seeds and stem, I’m a morning guy. I come before the non-locals clog the slippery sidewalk and when the choice is best, even if the bargains not as precipitous.

I have given tours to many, generally free, but also as a prize in a church auction. I know who specializes in what, whose summer help will slip you bad produce, and under what conditions it makes sense to buy the fish. I have seen vendors become enfeebled and retire, I’ve known guys who’ve died, and I’ve made mental maps of stalls altered with no vendors. I took my boys to many breakfasts at Mike’s when Anna ran the morning show. It’s now just another vest-pocket Dunkin’ and a sorry subtraction.gourds.jpg

So, I lose my detachment when it comes to the Haymarket. I know too much about the white-bull riding, apple planting priest William Blaxton/Blackstone and what was there before the market. I take people by the Boston Stone and point out where the clipper ships docked. I am embued with Haymarket lore.

Even so, the farmers in Rochester charm with local fruits, vegetables, grouds and more.

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Oh, and I have no patience with those who have never been or were there once 19 years ago. My out-of-New England guests always go to Haymarket and a diner breakfast. They are invariably overwhelmed by noises, sights, smells and the treasures we gather…and then prepare and consume together.

onions.jpgThere I go again and as usual. Now I confess that the Public Market in Rochester is bigger and better and more diverse and just as cheap. The bags of onions to the left were $3.

As we are wont to hope in Boston, our market is nearly a century older (1830 to their 1905). Knowing they’ve outdone us in that cultural hole in Western New York won’t make me stop shopping at and loving my Haymaket. Yet, I admit that I am miffed that the Public Market is so good.

The differences are several and obvious, including:

  • With a lot more area farmers there, Rochester’s has many times the number and selection of in season fruit and produce.
  • Theirs is about three times bigger.
  • They have some things we just don’t — think Amish baked goods, local wines and large potted herbs
  • They have both indoor and outdoor stalls, providing several times the options of warm and cold noshes as the oyster stall and pizza bar here.
  • They have better hours than the Friday afternoon and Saturday morning to afternoon. They go Tuesday and Thursdays,  6:00 a.m.  to 1 :00 p.m., and Saturdays, 5:00 a.m. to 3 p.m.

cflower.jpgThey have the same level of inexpensive and ripe to the eye, nose and tongue wholesaler’s produce as the Haymarket. You can take $10 to $20 and feed a family from findings. Like the Haymarket and unlike grocers, this stuff is ready to eat as well as inexpensive. You’ll never get a white-pink tomato-like permanent object. The cauliflower to the right were from a local farm and nestled among baskets of fresh-cut broccoli.

So, Rochester’s Public Market pisses me off a little. My Boston pride was damaged. I’m trying to think this is a gift for my son and something to look forward to after a nearly seven-hour drive to see him.

pies.jpgRochester’s market is harder to get to. It’s below downtown, but on narrow North Union street with very limited parking. They don’t have a subway, although several bus routes bump and grind to the area.

We really enjoyed a miniature Amish baked pecan pie ($2.75) on our visit. We also returned home with a magnificant rosemary plant — a foot tall with multiple stalks ($5). I grow rosemary and know how tough it is to propogate and make flourish. This sits in our kitchen, perfumes our life, and was the basis for an impressive lamb dinner we had for guests this weekend.

The Amish couple from nearby Seneca Falls brought their inexpensive home baked breads and pastries.

I think I’ll adapt to knowing the the Public Market is out there, but there’s a bit of resentment. Maybe this is like a crush on a movie star.

Whalebones and Sermons

June 26th, 2008

Some skills we are wise not to advertise. One of mine is paper folding and envelope stuffing, which often come in a pair.

I recalled my childhood. While not Dickensian, the hours preparing Red Cross mailings were on task.  This morning my memories transported me as I prepared an order of service for this Sunday. This time it was only 45 sets.

Playing Preacher

It is amateur hour, quite literally at First Parish in Brookline. I am in a set of sparsely attended summer services. Ordained ministers, perhaps largely so congregants don’t forget them, preach a few of these June through August. Most services are by one-shot pretend ministers. Perhaps like every cab driver, business executive and others, we believe we have at least one book and one sermon in us.

I am somewhat anal retentive. Coupled with nearly two decades as a technical writer, I have the tool (FrameMaker)  and the procedural oreintation for an order of service. But it is to my mother, Wanda, that I owe my efficiency at creasing paper and assembling such packages.

There’s no whalebone paper creaser here, but I learned such clerical skills using them.

I came after the days of buggy whip handles and corset stays in common use. Yet, I grew up when whales and other high-intelligence mammals were fair game — literally. Today, it is illegal to import or export whale parts, although interstate trade and selling antique objects is permissible.

From centuries ago, people knew how good whalebone was for creasing paper. Don’t think a  basketball or larger sized vertebra. Whalebone is not whale bone, rather the osteoid filter blades in the mouth of a baleen whale. In fact, whalebone is the baleen.

It is much denser and ivory-like than a more porous bone. Even without smoothing and carving, whalebone has soft edges. A piece about the size of a letter opener presses down paper, making a crisp edge without catching or tearing.  You can also use one a long time without getting a cramp or blister. The modern plastic versions imitate the whalebone proportions and curved edges.

Lifelong Skills

Because volunteer availability is often unpredictable, my sister and I were unquestioning volunteers in our mother’s Red Cross chapters from primary school. In part, she instilled a worth ethic in us, as well as the awareness that volunteering  should be part of everyone’s obligation to neighbors and other humans around.

(I confess that we did the same to her many times. After the years we lived in Japan, she would end up in front of our of our classes in kimono and obi, holding up cultural objects and lecturing.)

Back to the not-so-thrilling days of mimeograph machines and German Gestetner copiers that reeked of ammonia… We sat and joked and folded and stuffed. Mailings by the many hundreds were possible and passable with good company and a couple of whalebones.

We saw that process in the summers at my grandparents’ backyard as well. My grandmother, Mable, played a little game with her husband a few times a summer. She’d say, “Bill I need a few Lima beans.”  Another time, she’d say the same about tomatoes, green beans, peaches and more. Granddad would go to his gardens or the nearby orchards and arrive with two or more bushels of the stuff.

Then the neighbors and kids in our immediate family would show. Under the wide maple in the yard, we take chairs or picnic benches and bend to work. Back when string beans had strings, we’d pull those and chop the beans. We’d press our thumbs into pea or Lima pods until they popped and we’d push the beans out with our thumbnails. Mable was off to canning and everyone got a share as she stocked the whole basement, floor to ceiling with jars and her deep freeze with bags.

Today, I only had 45 orders of service. It wasn’t worth gathering a community. The work would be complete before the second story finished.  Pity. There’s much learn and enjoy in communal tasks.

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Princess Tree: 2

June 22nd, 2008

pblossom.jpgI had time to visit the princess trees (Paulownia Tomentosa) again this afternoon. The original on this funky Asian delight is here. My uxorial unit and a mutual friend had stumbled under a few more and gotten caressed by lavender blossoms on the way.

So here are the flowers and a slightly annotated map. The blossoms are blue or lilac, often high in a mature tree. They are bell-shaped and hang down like foxglove. There are hundreds of them in a tree. They tend to fall in large numbers.

There seem to be about a half dozen of these trees in the Arnold Arboretum. They don’t rate a listing on the interactive map.  However, for your ambling and gawking pleasure, look at the purple Ps on this version. There’s one on the gravel walkway between the Forest Hills Station and the South Street Gate, two on a dirt path East off Beech Path, and three up the hill South from the middle of the lilacs. Check in mid to late May (around Lilac Sunday) for the profusion of blossoms.paulownia.jpg

Grow Your Own Packing Peanuts

June 15th, 2008

The latest treasure we found at JP’s Arnold Arboretum was a tree that has long been important to the Chinese and Japanese, and one that made its own packing peanuts hundreds of years before Styrofoam™.

I’m one of those tag readers and feel a cheap thrill when I discover something like the PAULOWNIA TOMENTOSA. Rationally I know that this is akin to reading a road sign, but hey I’ll take my pleasures as they come.

There are only a few of these 50-footers there. One is on the gravel path from Forest Hills Station. Another is just east of Beech Path overlooking the state labs. A few are on the hill above the lilacs. These are not important enough to be listed on the map.

Paulownia tomentosa podsOn the other hand, it has a fine history and present..plus click on those seed pods!

That’s what first caught my eye. Then looking way up, the pale violet bell-shaped flowers were both subtle and profuse. They look like foxglove (digitalis). The leaves are worth mentioning too. They are perhaps a foot long, broad and ovate. They seem to belong on a swamp shrub instead of a sizable tree.

Once I found its copper label, I wanted to know what the deal was with those pods and why weren’t any seeds around amidst so many of them?

The Pods. The seed pods have their own tale. The tree is native to China and cultivated widely in Japan as well. We are at the North of its range and apparently the many hundreds of tiny seeds in each pod are not very efficient. They should be capable of germinating in the spring, but you don’t see babies popping up. On the other hand, the seeds like warm weather and in parts of the Southeast, this is an invasive tree. It was introduced as an ornamental and well, you know how that works.
The pods turn out to be great protective packing material. Merchants shipping valuable and fragile objects from Orient to Occident used these for centuries in their crates.

The Name. Paulownia is an honorific to someone who basically had nothing to do with the tree. When she was a duchess, the daughter of Russia’s Tsar Paul, Anna Pavlovna (1795-1865) of the Netherlands got the honor. She later became Queen of the Netherlands. In case you’ve forgotten you terms, tomentosa means furry, as in the backs of the leaves.Japanese PM seal

The Culture. It is also known as princess tree. Traditionally on the day a daughter is born, the parents plant one. It grows rapidly and matures about the time a young woman is of marrying age. Its wood is highly prized in both China and Japan for cabinetry. She receives an elaborate cabinet as part of her coming of age.

The tree is viewed as important enough that it is a feature on the seal of the Japanese prime minister.

The arboretum includes the tree in its history of how Frank N. Meyer came to bring them from China a century ago.

The flowers are abundant in late May. They are remarkable for their delicate coloring, their being out of reach, and that they tend to fall by the ones and dozens as you pass.

By the bye, despite the seeds’ seeming infertility here, propagation can be by root or greenwood cuttings. Young, unfolding leaves can also create a new Paulownia. Finally, after being harvested, the tree invariably puts up a new main trunk.

Except for the floral period, Paulownia isn’t showy. It’s trunk is pretty dull too. It’s a scholar or poet though, with a lot at work behind its quiet appearance.