Country Roads

Alongside the country road I drive most days, I’m sure to find—depending on the time of year—trillium, wild irises, fire pinks, flame azaleas, rhododendron, mountain laurel, Japanese meadowsweet, bee balm, daisies, evening primrose, black-eyed Susans, Turk’s cap lilies, Queen Anne’s lace, wild blackberries, Joe-Pye weed, touch-me-nots, ironweed, snow, and ice. All strikingly beautiful and all worth slowing down for.

 

On a cool but sunny day, I’m as likely as not to find a lazy dog dozing on the asphalt, in no hurry to get out of my way.

It isn’t rare to find myself behind a farmer driving his slow-moving tractor from one field to another. Other times it may be a load of Christmas trees or a flatbed groaning under the weight of too many rolls of hay puttering along in front of me.

A deer, raccoon, possum, chipmunk, squirrel, rabbit, or even a fox or bobcat might scamper—or mosey—across the road any time of day or night.

I often come upon a car or truck at a dead standstill, the driver having stopped to catch up on the latest community ‘news’ with a neighbor. Usually, they’ll look ahead and wave me around; they’re nowhere near ready to move on themselves.

It’s only right to roll down the window for a “Howdy” when couples are out for a morning jog or an evening stroll. Those moments, too, may turn into drawn-out conversations.

One should never be in a hurry on a country road.

Never Too Old To Learn

Well, I learned something new the other day!  When we moved to the North Carolina mountains several decades ago, the Gnome and I were taken with the many new-to-us wildflowers growing along roadsides. One, we were told, was phlox, also known as summer phlox, tall phlox, or garden phlox. Phlox paniculata.

Now, we knew about phlox—creeping phox, that is, otherwise known to us as thrift—those mounds of pinks, blues, and violets that cascade over rock walls. Quite a ground cover. Phlox subulata.

This tall phlox  was new to us. Same colors, it grows in clusters on tall, slender stems. Every year we see them brightening up already bright spring days. (Or so we thought.)

What–this isn’t phlox?!

This year, they seem to  be growing in particular abundance–on road shoulders, next to creek beds, on hillsides. But, it turns out, this spring wildflower I’ve been admiring isn’t phlox at all. How about that? What I’ve been admiring this spring is dame’s rocket, sometimes known as gilliflower. Hesperis matronalis, if you’re interested.

I think I can be forgiven for confusing these plants. To the casual—or not so casual—observer, they look identical. Same growth pattern, same height (around two to four feet), same color palette, they grow in similar environments. There are subtle differences, though, and you’d have to get a much closer look than you can when you’re driving past. Dame’s rocket has four petals, while phlox has five. (An easy mnemonic: dame = four letters; phlox = five letters. How convenient!)

This one is phlox.     http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Epibase

There’s an easier way to recognize the difference in these two flowers, and it has nothing to do with the appearance of the blossoms: dame’s rocket is a spring flower; phlox blooms later in the summer.

Both are fragrant in the evenings and relatively scentless earlier in the day. The flowers of both dame’s rocket and Phlox paniculata (but not annual or creeping phlox) are edible with a mild, spicy-sweet flavor. Dame’s rocket is a close relative of arugula and mustard and, like them, its leaves (which are best eaten before the flowers blossom) have a slightly bitter taste. Flowers and leaves would make a lovely addition to salads. Sprouted dame’s rocket seeds are also edible.

Moreover, dame’s rocket has been used for medicinal purposes, and it’s also known as an aphrodisiac. Who knew? (Not me. I didn’t even know its name!)

Sad to say, this spring bloomer is considered an invasive species in most states. Seems it has a take-charge attitude, pushing aside more polite plants. So, I won’t be buying any dame’s rocket seeds or digging up roadside plants to pretty up my place. But I’m sure going to enjoy them on country drives. And now that this ‘old dog’  has learned the difference between dame’s rocket and phlox, I think may appreciate both of them even more.

 

 

 

 

 

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 Has Sprung!

In this yet another crazy weather year, the entire month of February was one cruel joke: such sunny, springlike weather that some of the wildflowers began to bloom. It gave us a too-early taste of the beauty and hope of spring. And then, winter returned—with a vengeance. It must have decided it liked it here because it stayed and stayed. Those heavy winter coats we wanted to put away back in February were called into frequent action all through April.

I wondered if spring would ever come. Seriously, I began to have my doubts. Back in April, my Facebook memories taunted me. There I was with a healthy handful of asparagus in early April a few years ago. This year, though, not the tiniest hint of an asparagus spear more than a full month later. Next, a three-year-old memory popped up showing our big rhododendron bursting with beautiful clusters of pink. That was a few weeks ago. Meanwhile, our rhodie remained bereft of color.

Finally, of course, spring did decide to emerge, and when it did it came on like a house afire. Pretty, white trillium flowers began dotting our forest landscape. One day the ground broke in a couple of spots in our asparagus bed. The next, we were deluged with asparagus. (I am not complaining.) We hadn’t been able to get our early crops planted as early as usual this year. It was either too cold or too wet. When we did have a decent break in the weather, our schedules demanded something else of our time.

Now we’re making up for it. We took to the garden on the first clear day of May. We may have gotten a little ahead of ourselves—our last average frost date is May 25th, but the long-range forecasts look so hopeful we’re taking a chance. We’ve forced ourselves to hold off on the things that demand more heat, but we couldn’t wait to get most everything else in the ground, even those seeds that say not to plant until there’s no more danger of frost. At this point, I’m okay with replanting if some of our seedlings get zapped by a late frost. It just felt too good to get out there and get dirt under my fingernails.

So far, we’ve planted onions, spinach, radishes, carrots, parsnips, rutabaga, kohlrabi, cucamelon, shelling and snow peas, runner beans, potatoes (purple and yellow), yellow squash, zucchini, lots of herbs, cabbage, broccoli, eggplant, beets, and more, as well as new raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries. Still to come: Christmas limas, scarlet runners, tomatoes, green beans, okra, and cukes.

Here are a few photos of long-awaited growing things—both wild and from the garden.

We’re eating asparagus everything these days!

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Lots of strawberry blossoms—yum!

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The peas are up.

So are our salad greens—already they need thinning. Fine by me.

We’re giving Jerusalem artichokes a try this year, safe and secure in their own little bed so they don’t take over the whole garden.

Garlic is so special—plant it in the fall and forget it. It’s the first thing to appear in spring.

Bright Lights chard with stems in beautiful rainbow hues, interplanted with marigolds for even more color

Edible wildflowers–what a gift! Violets (sugared, for jelly, or in salads); wild mustard flowers and leaves add color and tang to salads; star chickweed is another salad option; mayflowers grow a sort of apple-like fruit that can be used in pies—assuming you can get to them before the deer. We never have.

 

Trillium—they have three of everything, it seems. And they’re all over the place right now.

 

Showy columbine

 

 

 

 

Summer’s Slow Slide into Fall

Summer’s Slow Slide into Fall (written in mid-August)

First day of summer: words that conjure up notions of vacations, suntans, freedom from homework. Thoughts of fun in the sun with summer reads, picnics, hikes, swimming, tennis, softball and baseball, bike rides, day trips. All those traditional outdoor activities mean summer’s here.

In truth, when the first official day of summer rolls around, fall is already lurking in the shadows. The first sign, of course, is day length. Summer means longer days, right? But summer officially begins with the summer solstice—the year’s longest day. The very next day—officially the first full day of summer—will be a little shorter, as will the day after that, and the next, and the next. Every day for the next six months.

It’s about the time of the summer solstice that I inevitably spot a tree with that one red or yellow leaf. I’m a big fan of autumn, but I also prefer to live one day at a time, and that leaf sits there taunting me, reminding me that fall is inching its way into my life. To the astute observer, other signs of autumn’s sure return are all around. Those lime-green spring leaflets that sprouted on trees (wasn’t that just yesterday?) have been growing both larger and darker. Before they put on their showy fall display, they will continue to darken until, in the distance, they’re such a deep green they look almost black.

As spring wildflowers transform into summer ones, so summer’s blooms have now, almost imperceptibly, given way to those of fall. Daisies are replaced by Queen Anne’s lace; black-eyed Susans seem to morph into yellow coneflowers, Jerusalem artichokes, and sunflowers. Floral hues become both more muted and more rich. The buttery yellows of summer’s evening primrose make way for the more mellow tones of fall’s goldenrod. There’s the rusty shade of spotted touch-me-nots in lieu of daylilies’ brighter tints. In the wild, pinks virtually disappear as summer subsides, and lavenders transmute into the subtler mauves of milkweed and Joe-pye weed and the rich purple of ironweed. In front yards, gardeners discard summer’s petunia palette in favor of the earth tones of chrysanthemums. Berries appear. Fruits ripen.

 

 

Birds’ feathers become a little less brilliant. Grasses develop gracefully drooping seed heads. Little by little, vegetable gardens show signs of wear as growth slows, pumpkins turn from green to orange, and early veggie plants dry up or go to seed.

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The sun itself gets in on the action. Ever since summer’s solstice, its arc becomes a little more southerly, a little lower as it moves across the sky.

As I write this piece at the beginning of the third week of August, my calendar tells me we are just past summer’s midpoint. To be precise, sixty percent of our summer days have passed. Sitting outside in the afternoon, I hear a distinctive sound unique to this time of year—the thump of acorns and hickory nuts as they hit the ground in the woods. It’s not a safe time to be standing under a nut tree!

Then comes an evening’s after-supper walk when I unexpectedly sense another change. The days may still be warm and humid, but I feel the barest hint of chill in the night air. Sometimes, I even catch a slight change in nighttime scents—a little less floral, a little more spice. My ears notice the ever-increasing cacophony of crickets and katydids doing their late-summer thing. Their sounds also pierce the otherwise country quiet during the day, but at night the music is almost deafening, yet soothing in its own way and one more sign that fall is closing in.

Fall has always been my favorite season, so I welcome its coming. Still, it’s a little curious that just as we’re getting into the full swing of summer, autumn has already begun its birthing process. I guess that’s the way of things. The peak signals certain ending, but an ending accompanied by new beginnings—caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly, seed to tree and back to seed again, adolescence to adulthood, retirement to a new life chapter,  the whole of life itself.