Weeds Are Flowers, Too!

“Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.” ―A.A. Milne

I love this quote, and it’s so true. Another equally true saying is “Weeds are plants whose virtues we haven’t yet learned.” Many decades ago, The Gnome and I discovered that the hundreds of wild purple violets popping up in our back yard could be turned into jelly, as delicately eye-popping as it was tasty.

Dandelion is the bane of many a gardener and lawn-lover, but it is actually an herb worthy of respect—a cheery little plant with more uses than you can count on all your fingers, whether culinary, medicinal, or otherwise. You can use virtually all parts of the plant, though you’ll want to avoid the sticky stems.

Dandelions are packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. With the leaves, you can make everything from salad greens to classic Irish colconnon to quiche.

Did you know dandelions aren’t native to the U. S., but were imported by European immigrants for their culinary and medicinal uses?

Last year, we made the most exquisitely subtle syrup from the flowers. I’d have been hard pressed to tell it apart from honey. Dandelion tea and wine are other favorites. Dry the root for a coffee substitute. Fresh roots can be used instead of or alongside other root crops. Make a hand lotion or moisturizer from the flowers. Pollinators love dandelions.  And who can forget the sheer joy of blowing on a dandelion puff?

Lamb’s quarters fill the fields with buttery yellow blossoms in springtime. Just before they get to that stage, the stems can be harvested and eaten as a broccoli substitute. And the young leaves make an excellent addition to a green salad.

Chickweed, invasive as it can be, is another nutritious green. Add spinach-y chickweed stems, flowers, and leaves to salads or cook them up like other greens.

Star chickweed is only one of  twenty-five varieties of Stellaria, a member of the carnation family. All are edible and all except the mouse-eared variety can be eaten raw. 

By looking at so-called weeds through a different lens, we can find beauty, peace of mind, and functionality. Not to mention a veritable grocery store in our own back yards.

* If you’re thinking of joining the foraging movement, find yourself a good field guide that will also alert you to similar-looking but unfriendly plants. You’ll also want to (1) ask permission before foraging on private property; and (2) avoid areas that have been exposed to chemical pesticides or herbicides as well as roadsides. They retain automotive emissions you wouldn’t want to ingest.

 

 

 

Spring! Is it Here to Stay?

A couple of weeks ago, we packed up the car for an errand of love. On that day, spring had been teasing us off and on for a couple of weeks. The daffodils were on the wane, but not much else had bloomed up here at our elevation–and another spring snow was in the forecast. What a surprise when we returned home almost a week later to find that our meadow had sprouted a field full of green grass and sunshiny dandelions!

Not just sprouted, but in need of a haircut. Most of our deciduous trees are still bare, but other signs of spring are everywhere. The asparagus bed was bare when we left—on our return we had stalks a foot tall! Our young crabapple is on the verge of bursting into a froth of pink blooms.

But for me, the real promise of spring is the serviceberry, and those snowy white blossoms were the first thing I noticed as we reached our driveway. We may still have a cold snap or two, but the serviceberry is my assurance that spring has kept its promise.

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It’s a sure sign of spring when these dainty flowers come into bloom.

See how bare things are all around this serviceberry?

Most of the two dozen or so species of serviceberry are native to the U. S., and they grow in practically every state. Depending on where you live, you may know them by another name. Maybe shadbush, juneberry, shadblow, or their Native American name, saskatoon. In the east, it’s just plain serviceberry, or sarvisberry in our southern mountain dialect.

There are lots of stories about how the serviceberry came by its name. The one I’m particularly fond of says that back in the day, the tree came into flower just as the roads in the Appalachian mountains became passable enough that a circuit-riding preacher could finally travel this way again to hold service—or sarvis. Time for marryin’ and buryin’ to resume. That explanation may be a bit fanciful, but I find the notion charming.

There’s more to the serviceberry than its early blooms and the tales associated with it. A member of the rose family, it’s a good landscaping choice with its pretty spring flowers and its striking fall foliage.

And though I’ve been known to boil and eat milkweed pods like okra, make jelly out of native hawthorns, and fry up locust and elderberry blossom fritters, you could have knocked me over with a feather when I (only recently) discovered that the serviceberry actually bears fruit. (Duh! Just look at the name, Carole!)

In my defense, our trees are tall, and it would be hard for the naked human eye to spot those small berries. But, hey, I’m a homesteader and a follower of foragers like Euell Gibbons (Stalking the Wild Asparagus, etc.) and Ellen Zachos. How did I miss that?!

About a month from now, the careful observer will notice small red berries. By mid-summer, they’ll be a deep purplish-blue. Like blueberries. They taste a lot like blueberries, too. And like blueberries, they can be eaten raw or used for jelly- and pie-making or any of the other myriad ways blueberries are used.

Most of the serviceberries around here are natives, as much as sixty feet tall. With their upward-stretching limbs, it’s hard to get at those berries. Maybe it’s just as well, since the birds love them, too, and we love the birds.

The good news is you can purchase shrub varieties to make berry collecting ever so much easier. The Gnome and I have added them to the ever-growing list for our nascent fruit orchard.

If you see a serviceberry in bloom, make a note of it. Then check back in July or so for some tasty—and free—eating. You won’t be sorry.

Rhododendron’s Many Faces

The rhododendron buds for next year’s flowers appear almost as soon as petals drop from the bush like an early summer cascade of pink snowflakes.

In winter, I can tell how many layers I need to wear by looking out the window at the big rhodie in our yard. On temperate days, the oblong leaves lie almost flat. As colder weather comes our way, they begin to curl inward, as if hugging themselves to keep the chill off. On the coldest days, a toddler’s little finger wouldn’t fit inside a single one of those curls.

As the leaves hang pendulously in winter, the buds above point skyward, reaching for warmth. Individually, they look like homemade hankie days long gone. Clustered together, they remind me of a chorus of angels.

On days like today, the merest dusting of snow clings to the leaves, and I see a different kind of snow angel.

Not long after spring makes its debut, the buds are pregnant with new life almost ready to burst open with color and aroma as killing frosts threaten.

Yet, somehow, they survive.

The Other Side of Snow

In eastern South Carolina where I grew up, about an hour’s drive from Myrtle Beach, a snowfall was a unexpected and exciting gift from Mother Nature. I remember one particularly bountiful snow—enough to build a snowman! That was a true rarity. My brothers and I went all out, rolling three balls of snow, each larger than the one before. We rolled and we rolled. How proud we were to be able to make a huge snow statement.

We rolled the huge bottom section where we wanted to build our snowperson. We rolled the next one over, but when we tried to lift it into place, it didn’t budge. That’s how little we knew about snow. Finally, Dad’s strength and ingenuity solved our conundrum.

Now I live in a place that gets snow most every winter, some years more than others. I enjoy the variation of the seasons, so I welcome snow. Sometimes.

In the right conditions, a snowfall can be breathtakingly beautiful. If the temperature hovers near the freezing mark, the snow is usually heavy and wet, turning every outdoor thing into a pearlescent sculptural wonder.

 

 

Snow paw and snow antlers

 

 

Snow fences

Stopping by woods on a snowy evening

The tiny, dry flakes created by brisker winter temperatures sparkle when the sun comes out as if billions of diamonds fell from the sky.

If the snow is preceded by hoar frost, feathery ice crystals that attach themselves to every outdoor surface, the whole world becomes white—every branch of every tree, every pine needle, every fence post and metal structure, everything. It almost makes my heart ache.

Clothespins on clothesline

Tree with hoar frost against blue sky

Abandoned bed springs

Garden fence

 

Pine branch

 

Even cobwebs are appealing when covered in hoar frost.

 

But snow has another side. The excitement grows old when winter comes early and refuses to leave center stage so colorful spring can make a long-awaited debut. And that’s not all.

When even a modest snow is accompanied by strong winds, as is so often the case on our mountainside, the snow piles into unplowable drifts. We’ve been known to pack snowshoes, a shovel in case we get stuck, and a plastic sled in our car and park at the bottom of our nearly half-mile gravel drive in anticipation of such an event. On more than a few occasions, we’ve slogged up that mountain road pulling a sled full of groceries, bags of pet food and birdseed, book bags, and more.

Sometimes we’ve been caught off guard. Without snowshoes or the shovel that spends most of the winter in the car, walking in can be a real trial, especially in a deep snow where each step means lifting one’s knees waist high or higher with every step. And climbing uphill, at that. Conversely, we’ve been completely snowed in for four or five days at a time. An adventure at first, but gnawing anxieties grow with each day as we begin considering the possibilities of being trapped in the event of an emergency.

And then there’s that dreaded word, ice. At just the right—or wrong—temperature, snow is preceded by rain which freezes on roads. Sometimes the reverse happens and rain or sleet falls after the snow. Walking and driving in either condition is treacherous. Add steep, curvy, and sometimes narrow mountain roads for a bigger thrill than any theme park ride.

 

 

Icicles can be fascinating, though, especially when the wind blows.

In normal times, we may only have one ‘good’ snow a year, and it doesn’t usually hang around long. A day or two later, the sun’s rays melt most of it away. We’ve had a few exceptional years, though. Real doozies.

In 1993, snow totaled more than three feet in just over two days. We were under curfew for forty-eight hours straight. Locals fondly remember it as the Blizzard of ’93 (and yes, it was an actual blizzard). At the time, it was called ‘the storm of the century.’ The National Weather Service named it a superstorm.

The 2009-10 winter brought us more than nine feet of snow—and since temps remained below freezing for the duration, none of it had a chance to melt. For more than three months, the only outdoor colors we saw were white and gray.

Once we could drive around our mountain road,  2010

Snow field

Fifty years earlier, way back in 1960 (well before we lived here), it only snowed seven feet, all of it falling in a just over a month. Every other day it snowed. Temperatures never rose. The winds were fierce. What snowplows cleared one day, howling winds turned into another drift the next. Children missed a month of school; helicopters dropped food, medicine, and cattle feed to isolated rural households.

Now, I know our snow totals are nothing compared to the country’s northernmost areas and tallest peaks. But, hey, I’m in the south. Most folks don’t typically associate such snow totals in the land they think of as all sunshine and beaches.

But don’t feel sorry for us. We mountaineers take a kind of perverse pleasure in our extreme weather. It’s like a badge of honor and we wear it (read: talk about it) all the time, as if we somehow deserve credit for weather’s natural occurrences. We proudly claim our snow.

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Among the trees

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Taking a bite out of snow

Bragging rights

Back in my high school days, when every snowflake sent us running to the windows in gobsmacked awe, we were naively oblivious to snow’s downsides. All we knew was that even a relatively deep snowfall would disappear within hours, the reason we wasted no time getting outside.

During spring break of my senior year, our high school chorus went on tour. We were headed to New York. We spent a night in New York City, the first time most of us had ever seen a skyscraper. Then we traveled upstate to perform. We were excited to see snow on the ground. But what were those humongous ugly mountains of grayish-black, sludgy-looking stuff at nearly every corner? Yeck! Why, I wondered, didn’t these northerners care enough to keep their snow clean and pristine? How could they let it sit around and get so dirty, so totally ruinous to the landscape of purest white?

Now I know.

 

 

Recent snow scene

That Feel Good Moment (Another Kind of Love Story)

We woke up to another glorious snowfall, this one a fluffy six inches deep and preceded by hoar frost that made all outdoors a glittery white. We bundled up in warm layers and snow boots in preparation for a trip to town for a few errands.

On the porch, the Gnome was fumbling with boxes destined for the recycling bin while I was busy locking the door. I turned around to see what looked like an apparition of Amber, one of our beloved pets of yore.

The dog was beguiling with her golden plume of a tail wagging in youthful enthusiasm. Where had she come from? We live far from a public road. How long had she been out? She must be hungry and cold.

For a moment we thought we’d once again been adopted. But she was wearing a harness. She must have been with her humans recently. Surely she hadn’t been abandoned by the side of the road.

As the Gnome held tightly to her harness, he felt for a tag. Appropriately, it read, “Not all who wander are lost, but I might be.” There was a phone number. I was already digging for my cell phone.

“Hello,” the male voice answered.

“Hi, we have a dog here whose tag has this phone number attached.”

I could hear deep worry quickly replaced by relief as he told me he and his wife were out looking for her at that very moment. We exchanged information; they were less than half a mile away. I told him we’d pile her in the car and meet them in a few minutes.

But they weren’t about to hang around waiting. Before we got to the road, we saw them hiking up the mountain on our very long, climbing, gravel road. Red-faced, wet-haired, and with tears rolling down their cheeks, they hugged each other, they hugged the dog, they hugged the Gnome. (I’m sure they would have hugged me, too, but I was still buckled up in the car at the moment.)

Turns out this young couple had been out on a romp with their barely one-year-old pup. They’d practiced letting her off leash at home for a few weeks with no problems and decided today, on the remote path they were hiking, would be a good time to try it further afield. But they turned away for a mere second. That was all it took for her to disappear. Probably spotted a rabbit or maybe a deer.

They’d been searching for a couple of hours, climbing ever higher in the deepening snow—exhausted, worried, with no idea if they were going in the right direction, and about to give up when the phone rang. In the few minutes she’d been in our custody, we’d already fallen a little in love with the dog, but our infatuation couldn’t hold a candle to the adoration this young couple showed for their furbaby.

Even though they insisted they could walk, we couldn’t let them trek another half mile home. They were on a natural high but obviously overheated and exhausted. We piled the humans in the car, too, with the dog safely ensconced between them.

After we dropped them off, I realized how full my heart was. I looked at the Gnome and said, “Doesn’t it feel good to do a good deed!” We had smiles on our faces, smiles in our hearts, and livelier springs in our steps the rest of the day.

Have you found your good deed for today? This day devoted to love is the perfect time to reach out. You’ll be glad you did.

Bear Sighting

Have I told you about our late night bear visits? That’s right. We’ve had a bear in our front yard, on our wooded hillside, even on our deck. We named her Shadow. I tried to capture the tale in a rhyming story for the grandkids.

Okay, not the greatest shot, but hey, I was staring at a bear!

SHADOW

It was late, late one night—
I woke up to a crash!
A Kapow! And a Bang!
I jumped up in a dash!

I wandered outside
and what did I see?
A great big black bear
staring at me!

That bear was so black,
that bear was so big
with her cinnamon nose,
I just flipped my wig!

But why was she there
in my yard late at night?
She was eating my birdseed—
every single last bite!

What could she think
of seeing me now
peeking out in the dark
and watching her chow?

I thought she might run,
but I found that instead
she sat on her haunches
slowly turning her head

To give me a stare.
So I stared right back
till I suddenly thought
I ought to backtrack

Or she’ll give me a whack
with her giant bear paws,
or carry me off
in her great big bear jaws.

I tiptoed inside
and called Grampa Ron.
“Come here to the window!”
But the big bear was gone.

And so was the birdseed,
and the bird feeder, too!
We found it next day
at the edge of the wood.

Can you picture that bear,
feeder swinging from mouth
like a big picnic basket,
traveling south?

The next night and the next
she did not come back,
but the following night
what a thwack, whack, and crack!

A tree limb she broke.
Another bird feeder gone!
And where do you think
we picked up this one?

Right! Right you are—
at the edge of the woods
just where she left
the first of her goods!

She was so clever,
that great big old bear;
She gobbled her food
with nary a care.

She hasn’t returned.
I do not know why.
Maybe she’s patiently
waiting for pie!

The Tyranny of the Garden

Last week I extolled the virtues of gardening, and here I am saying the garden is a tyrant. I know. I’m a bundle of contradictions.

It always happens about this time of year—when the garden’s productivity turns into excess and demands more time than I have to give it. And I’m not talking about weeding and watering. For the most part, the Gnome takes care of those chores. I’m talking about harvesting the results of all the labor that has gone before. I’m talking about the next steps. This is the time of year I begin to reevaluate my relationship with the garden.

When the Gnome and I purchased our first home, we couldn’t wait to plant a garden. A few years after we moved to the diagonal, we tried gardening again. But we were too busy with child-rearing, house building, and jobs to keep up with it. When we retired, we took up gardening yet again—it was a natural extension of the simple lifestyle we were after. He liked working out of doors, doing something where he could see results, connecting to the earth.

I had my own reasons. Gardening is a huge part of my heritage; it ties me to my ancestors. Besides, I wanted to prove to myself that I could. If we were to find ourselves in the midst of a worldwide food catastrophe, I wanted to know I could still make food happen.

I like the smaller footprint we make by growing and eating our own food. Getting food from thousands of miles away costs the environment and decreases food’s quality and flavor. It doesn’t get much more local than taking a few steps from door to garden.

I like knowing exactly what’s going into my body. When I grow my own, I do. And there’s something almost magical about realizing the food I prepare and eat is mine! I made this happen. There’s nothing quite like looking at a plate of lima beans, broccoli, squash with onions, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, and cornbread cooked with meal ground from our own corn and realizing that everything on the plate is fresh from the garden.

Gardening is primal. It’s healing. It’s hope. But it also takes over my life for about half the year. In the dead of winter, that’s a good thing. I need a break from winter’s tedium. But I have more in my life than gardening. At least I want to.

At this time of year, the garden is a demanding taskmaster. Food that isn’t harvested at the right moment gets tough and seedy. Failure to pick inhibits further growth. (Sometimes I could do with a little growth inhibiting, but it feels almost criminal to let it go.) Or it rots. Heartbreaking.

If it were only the hour or so of picking beans and squash, digging potatoes and garlic, pulling up beets and carrots, it wouldn’t be so bad. But that’s only the beginning. There’s the rinsing and scrubbing, there’s rearranging the fridge to find a few more square inches of space for the day’s gleanings, there’s the meal planning—what needs to be eaten right away and what can wait a day or two or three (when there will be yet another kitchen full of fresh produce filling kitchen counters), there’s the search for recipes to learn how to prepare that weird new veggie I just had to plant and for other recipes to keep yet another meal of green beans or summer squash from becoming boring.

There’s the pickling and root cellaring and dehydrating and freezing and canning so we’ll have food from the garden all year long. Cleaning the kitchen and emptying it of everything nonessential, because processing food takes a LOT of space. Getting out equipment and supplies and cleaning them. Filling huge pots with water and waiting for it to boil. Sweating in a kitchen that was hot even before I turned on the stove. Setting timers, watching pots and gauges, adding ice to already icy water to chill freshly blanched foods. Labeling freezer containers, filling them, and finding space in a freezer already bursting at the seams. Cleaning up. Putting away. There will be no time left today for those other things I hoped—or needed—to get done.

There’s figuring out how to distribute the excess. Harvesting on a day my donation spot will be open and able to take my offering, on a day I can afford to leave the garden and kitchen to make a delivery.

There’s postponing vacations and family visits until after gardening season ends and before it starts up again.

And there’s the refrigerator-full of vegetables crying out to be eaten. Squash and beans and tomatoes last night, eggplant and peppers and carrots tonight, beets and chard and zucchini and cucumbers tomorrow night. Yes, it’s all good, an embarrassment of riches for vegetarians like us.

But every once in a while a person just wants some chips and a ‘Not Dog.’