Thursday, August 31, 2006


Since it's a day that ends in a 5 (the 15th of Fructidor to be exact), the French Republican Calendar features an animal: the trout.

I've only had trout once, when one of my writing clients, novelist Curt Colbert (who's written a series of fabulous retro detective novels, including Rat City, Sayonaraville and Queer Street), brought me a trout as a bribe since he had gone on a fishing expedition instead of doing his writing. It tasted great but I just have a hard time eating anything with eyes.

Since I don't have much to say about trout, I thought I'd tell you my only fishing story. When I was about six years old, my family spent a week at Lake Arrowhead, where my aunt and uncle had a cabin. We went out in a rowboat on the lake and I caught a fish, probably a trout. We threw it in a bucket and took it back to the cabin and when we got there it was still flopping around so I insisted that it be put into a pot of water. I'm sure my parents thought it would be dead by morning but they agreed. But when we got up in the morning, I ran out the back door to check on my fish and found it swimming round in circles in that tiny pot. So in a long procession, with me clutching the pot, we went back to the lake and dumped the trout back in. That was the last time I ever fished.

There is a brief article on trout at Wikipedia. I had not idea they are members of the Salmon family:


It’s Fructidor 14 in the French Republican calendar and the plant for today is the walnut.

I grew up in a suburban ranch house built in the San Fernando Valley in 1950 on the site of an old walnut orchard and there were three magnificent old walnut trees in our front yard. They were the oldest trees on our property and great climbing trees with their broad branches. I remember vividly the particular nutty smell of their leaves, the thudding sound of the nuts hitting the ground, the many techniques we devised to open them (the most effective was to hold two shells in one hand and crunch them together but we also used hammers and the sidewalk) and the wonderful flavor (although every once in a while you’d bite into a nut that had gone bad—been wormeaten?—and that would horrible taste would linger).

I’ve been missing walnuts as trees recently and just a few weeks ago discovered there is one growing right across the street. I discovered it during the bunny caper. One of my neighbors (we don’t know exactly who) abandoned three pet bunnies in the vacant lot, where the house used to stand that burned down). One day I was walking Pepe the Chihuahua down the street and we saw something white hopping down the sidewalk in front of us. It was one of the bunnies on the loose, pursued by several neighbors who were trying to round them up, quite unsuccessfully. A quick search of various web sites let us know that we weren’t going to have much luck trying to capture them but they seemed content to hang out together in the vacant lot and despite our fears they managed to fend off the neighborhood cats. I took to bringing them carrots every day. Someone else left them a little dish of water. One of the neighbors contacted a bunny rescue society (I like to think of them as the bunny whisperers) who sent out a family—husband and wife and two young girls—and one morning last week they successfully captured all three bunnies.

It was while I was taking carrots to the bunnies that I heard that familiar thump of nuts hitting the ground, looked up and realized I was standing under a walnut tree, my old friend from childhood. Unfortunately, I found it too late to try making the Italian liqueur nocino which is made from green walnuts gathered on St. John’s Eve. Here's a web site which offers a recipe for making nocino:
The squirrels seem to be getting most of the walnuts and I doubt there will be many left for me. I find half-nibbled green husks all over the ground beneath the tree.

Lately I’ve been buying organic walnuts at the natural foods store around the corner and toasting them to add to salads. Occasionally I eat a handful as a late night snack. According to the Walnut Marketing Board, walnuts have more omega-3 than any other nut: They are also a natural source of melatonin, which may be why I crave them at night.

The Wikipedia article on walnuts
provides a good but surprisingly short overview, considering the history of the plant. The earliest known walnuts were grown in Persia and are sometimes called Persian walnuts, although they are more often known as English walnuts. These are the trees I grew up with, which were brought to California by Spanish missionaries. The black walnut is native to North America. It is known for its ability to poison the area around it with a compound, jugleone, found in all walnuts but more concentrated in the black walnut. Chelsie VandaVeer, has written about this in her article “What tree poisons competitors to preserve its territory?” at her web site:

One of my favorite research web sites, Vegetarians in Paradise, has a long article on the history of walnuts, including information about their health benefits
This site also features walnut folklore. The common name, walnut, means “foreign nut.” The “Wal” comes from the same word by which the English characterized the Welsh, as the strangers. The Romans also thought the nut was strange but they called it the Gallic nut, since it came from Gaul. The Latin name Juglans comes from Jupiter or Jove’s glans, and means Jupiter’s nut. It is also associated with Jove’s wife, Juno, and with fertility.

Mrs. Grieve, as usual, provides a thorough discussion of the walnut, including the use of its leaves and bark in making dye and in curing skin diseases. She also provides recipes for pickling green walnuts.

For a visual treat, check out this beautiful photograph of fog in a walnut orchard, taken by Anthony Dunn

The illustration of the walnut comes from Mrs. Grieve’s site:

Wednesday, August 30, 2006


The plant for Fructidor 13 (August 30) is the barberry or berberis vulgaris. Mrs. Grieve says Berberis comes from the Arabic name for the fruit, and is derived from the word for a shell, referring to the glossiness of the leaves. It has yellow flowers and produces red berries. Grieve gives one common name for Barberry in England, where it is often used as a hedge plant, as the Pipperidge Bush, from 'pepon,' a pip, and 'rouge,' red, as descriptive of the scarlet, juiceless fruit. In Italy, it is sometimes called the Holy Thorn, because it was believed to be the plant used to make the Crown of Thorns.

There are many different species of barberry. See the article at Wikipedia for an amazing list:

In the Northwest, we have several barberry plants, the most famous being the Oregon Grape (Mahonia (berberis) aquifolia). It has glossy leaves that look a lot like holly, yellow flowers in March and April and produces bluish-purple pseudo-grapes.

As usual, Mrs. Grieve has a wonderful, long description of the barberry, how it is grown and how it is used medicinally, including recipes for making barberry drops and tartlets:

It is the fruit, I think, that earned this plant this position in the French Republican calendar.. Mrs. Grieve says the fruits are used to make a candy that Rouen is famous for: confitures d'epine vinette. I found a recipe for this in my Larousse Gastronomique. It involves putting clusters of barberries (still attached to the stem) into boiling sugar water and cooking until bubbles appear. The pan is removed from the stove and when the fruit it beginning to cool, it is left to drain on a cloth in a hot cupboard. The following day, it is transferred to white paper to continue draining. Then dust the berries with confectioners sugar and let them dry some more.

Barberries are also made into jam, used to flavor meats, cooked into tartlets, and pickled with vinegar. Mrs. Grieve relates that Simon Paulli was cured of a malignant fever by drinking an infusion of the berries sweetened with sugar and syrup of roses. At his great wine-making site, Jack Keller provides a recipe for making barberry wine:
This page provides several recipes for making barberry jam:
Larousse Gastronomique also mentions pickling the green berries like capers.

The leaves and bark are used medicinally. Michael Moore recommends using Oregon grape for three conditions: a bitter tonic for impaired salivary and gastric secretions, a stimulant for the liver, and, applied directly to the skin, as a disinfectant and antimicrobial.

Paghat, as usual, has a wonderful article on dealing with barberry in the garden, at least in her Northwest garden, plus some attractive photographs:

Montagné, Prosper, The New Larousse Gastronomique, Crown 1960
Moore, Michael, Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West, Red Crane Books 1993

Tuesday, August 29, 2006


A savoury odour blown,
Grateful to appetite, more pleased my sense
Than smell of sweetest Fennel
Milton, Paradise Lost

The plant for Fructidor 12 is fennel, and I've been growing fennel in my garden for years, partly because it's a plant beloved by Venus. Also because I love the flavor of fennel bulbs and am always buying them at the store and sslicing them into my salads. I've never gotten a big bulb from the ones in my garden and prefer to grow them for seeds.

At this time of the year, the yellow flower heads are going to seed. I pluck off the seed heads, put them in paper bags and shake them to get the seeds loose, then store them in glass jars for use in cooking. I especially like adding them to lasagna.

The fennel stalks themselves were once used as weapons by the Benedanti, whose exploits are described by Carlo Ginzberg in Ecstasies, in which he traces back the imagery found in European witch trials to a shamanic cult prominent in northern Italy whose members believed they left their bodies (during sleep or dreams) and protected the crops from bad walkers (Maladanti). The Benedanti used fennel stalks, the Maldanti sorghum stalks. Because I like to use every part of my plants, I use my fennel stalks to make trellises and stakes for other plants.

For more on fennel see Gernot Katzer's web site:
or Mrs. Grieve at

Monday, August 28, 2006

Watermelon Report

I'm trying to be a better blogger and that means giving you a glimpse of how I try to apply the tasks suggested by the "plant of the day" in my own life. Today, watermelon day, I waited until 8 PM to purchase a watermelon but then I used a tip from the Watermelon Promotion Board to choose one at my local natural foods grocery store, Rainbow Grocery: I picked one that had a prominent yellow spot, which indicates the place the melon was resting on the ground while ripening under the sun.

It was very heavy (I paid .69 a pound for it and it cost me $9.20) although it was the smallest watermelon in the bin. Watermelons are supposedly 92% water. That was pretty obvious once I started cutting it up. I had watermelon juice all over my counter and the floor.

I tried using my friend Bob's clever step technique but I hadn't observed him carefully enough and didn't bother to go back to the Watermelon Promotion Board's website for instructions. Instead I used a technique similar to the one I use on pineapples (cutting the fruit into wedges, then slicing close to the rind with one cut, and then making vertical cuts down and horizontal cuts across) to get cubes. I put some of the cubes in my food processor and made juice that I poured into an ice cube tray. We'll see how that goes tomorrow.

Meanwhile the stickiness of the watermelon juice all over my kitchen reminded me of my adventure yesterday. My daughter and I went to the last day of the Camlann Medieval Faire which is out near Carnation.
It's one of our favorite summer time activities. We've been attending since Shaw was 14 when we worked at a feast for Roger Shell, the eccentric genius who created an authentic 13th century medieval village just an hour outside of Seattle (and he gets to live there year round). Shaw has been a serving wench in previous years at the Bors Hede Inn on the premises and we usually attend one of Camlann's Yule feasts during the Winter holildays.

Anyway it was not winter on August 27, the last day of the fair. The temperature was around 83 and we were both perspiring in our medieval gowns. Shaw was wearing a linen chemise which she had embroidered, and a homespun linen gown that she dyed red, with a blue band at the hem. She had on her knife, her belt and her leather bag. I was wearing a much less authentic polyester fabric green gown with blue sleeves so I rented a slate blue surcoat, made of corduroy, from the clothiers shop, to wear over it.

At one point, I needed more money (as the merchants at the fair did not have the equipment to use my ATM card) so I went down to the local store to get cash. I was feeling self-conscious and sweaty in my medieval attire, especially when I pulled into the parking lot and saw it was full of adolescent local boys who were flirting with a few local adolescent girls. I slunk sheepishly into the little store and purchased a Pepsi-Cola, thinking I would get cash back, but that wasn't an option. I had to use the ATM, and pay a $1.25 service fee.

I did that and took my Pepsi out to the Geo Metro (one of my favorite cars) I had borrowed from my friend Michael, took a quick guzzle of the Pepsi and got in. I made a rather abrupt turn out of the parking lot (still embarassed by my costume and trying to get out of there quickly) and the Pepsi flew out of the center divider, got shaken up and fizzed all over the passenger well of Michael's car. Naturally I was anxious to clean it up, which meant re-parking and repeated trips into the little store, still broiling in my double layers of medieval clothing (how did they get through summers?) and perceived humiliation (some truck drivers arrived next). It took me about six trips back and forth before I had done all I coud do.

And why this story to go with watermelons? Because the watermelon I cut up at home was as sticky as the Pepsi in the car. I went back to the watermelon site to try to get an idea of how much natural sugar is in a watermelon but couldn't find it. Instead I found this web site which lists many different kinds of watermelon varieties. Now I wonder which kind I got.


The plant of the day for Fructidor 11 in the French Republican Calendar is the watermelon.
Did you know that it is a lycopene leader for fruit? More lycopene than tomatoes.

The National Watermelon Board provides instructions on how to choose, store and carve a watermelon:

They also provide directions and photographs of an amazing number of ways you can carve a watermelon including into a convertible bug, an airplane, a football helmet and the traditional basket. I particularly like the swan.

As well as a long list of recipes, most of which sound singularly unappealing (watermelon pie?). I might try the watermelon smoothie (lemon yogurt, mint leaves and a dash of cinnamon) or the watermelon popsicles or ice cubes.

Plus a link to watermelon festivals:

Watermelon is a member of the Cucumber family (like the melon) and originated in South Africa, probably in the Kalahari desert, according to the Wikipedia article:
The first record of a watermelon harvest comes from ancient Egypt (5,000 years ago). By the tenth century it was being cultivated in China which is still the world’s largest producer of watermelons. All parts of the watermelon are eaten in China: the rind is often pickled, and the seeds are roasted and seasoned. The fruit is frequently depicted as being eaten by the dead in art for Days of the Dead in Mexico. And there are legends about vampire pumpkins and watermelons in the Balkans:

I am going out looking for a watermelon and will report on what I find later in the day.

Friday, August 25, 2006


The plant of the day for Fructidor 8 is dogbane (also Indian hemp). The Latin name is apocynum cannabinum which also means poisonous to dogs, according to this Wikipedia article:
I am surprised that it is featured on the French Republican calendar as one source says it’s not found in western Europe, but another source mentions a dissertation written in Italy on apocynum.

It is native to North American and was used by the natives to treat syphilis, rheumatism, intestinal worms, fever, asthma, and dysentery. Michael Moore says the dried root can be used in a tincture as a vaso-dilating diuretic for dry skin, constipation and water retention. It can be used topically to induce sweat the tea stimulates the scalp. Mrs. Grieve says it is a cardiac tonic, like digitalis, and equally poisonous:

The best article I’ve found on the web is this one from Plants of the Future:
It mentions many uses for the plant. The seeds can be ground into a powder and used as meal. The sap, if left to harden overnight, can be chewed as gum. The milky sap is also a folk remedy for venereal warts. The herb was used by North American Indians to treat rheumatism, coughs, pox, whooping cough, asthma, internal parasites, diarrhea and to increase milk flow in lactating mothers. The root is the most active part of the plant medicinally. A weak tea made from the root has been used for cardiac diseases and also to get rid of worms. But it’s most useful as a fiber. For this purpose, it’s harvested in fall, after the seed pods form. The stems are steamed, then cooked for two hours with lye and pounded with mallets. Or the stems can be left to dry in the winter. The fiber is tough, does not shrink and retains its shape in water.

Chelsie VandaVeer, of, has several articles on dogbane:
and this one:
which talks about how the dogbanes trap (and thus kill) insects.

It doesn’t look like I’ll be able to find it my area, based on this map produced by the Burke Museum, our local natural history museum:

Moore, Michael, Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West, Red Crane Books 1993

Photo taken by a USDA employee which means it’s in the public domain. I found it at Wikipedia at

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Mystery Melon

The plant of the day for Fructidor 7 is the sugar melon or sucrion. It seems like it should be easy to figure out exactly what that is but all I learned from an hour of Internet searching was that the “sugar melon” is the name for a variety of cantaloupe. Then I found this fantastic web site (the true glory of the Internet) which lists names in every language for members of the melon family:

If I read this correctly, then the sucrion is a honeydew or a Crenshaw melon. So I went to the local high-class grocery store on my lunch break and found a plethora of melons: the usual honeydews, cantaloupes and watermelons plus Crenshaws and Canaris. I bought a nice 7 pound Crenshaw. It was ripe, based on the smell, the most accurate way to assess the ripeness of a melon according to my research. (I hold the stem portion up to my nose and sniff.) I would have done a taste test on several different melons but they were too heavy to carry back to work along with cupcakes for a co-worker’s birthday. The Crenshaw was interesting in flavor. More watery than a cantaloupe, and lighter in color too, but with a more cantaloupe-like flavor than a honeydew.

That reminded me of an article in Martha Stewart’s magazine on heritage melons. I went looking for it online at her web site and found this easy recipe for melon sorbet:
Plus this interesting recipe for mix and match melon soup (warning: which comes with an annoying ad complete with music):

I also found a link to Amy Goldman, who has a web site featuring heirloom melons
and a book about heirloom melons:

I’m still not sure which melon is a sucrion but this search has certainly opened my eyes (and my taste buds) to new possibilities.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


The plant of the day for Fructidor 6 is the tuberose (polianthos tuberose). It is a member of the Agave family, and blooms in July and August. The name tuberosa comes from the tubers from which it grows. The flowers appear on tall (3 to 4 foot) spikes; they look like waxy, white trumpets and have an intensely sweet fragrance. Like many night-blooming flowers, including its cousin the century plant, it is pollinated by moths. I was lucky enough to have a century plant blooming on my block last year at this time. It was heavenly. Maybe I will be so lucky as to find some tuberoses this year.

The tuberose was first grown in Mexico where it was known as omixochitl or bone-flower. It has always been cultivated. Chelsie Vandaveer features it in an interesting article under the title “What plant never grows in the wild?”
It was brought to Europe around the 16th century (VandaVeer says 1550; Elliott says 1629) and became popular because of its beauty and scent. Louis XIV placed an order for 10,000 to be grown in the flower beds at Trianon. In Italy, and in Grasse, France, they were grown in large quantities for the perfume industry. Tuberoses had been imported to the Philippines before Europe, which is why they are sometimes thought of as native to East India. Fashionable florist Shane Connolly features tuberoses threaded into garlands and laid on the tablecloth for the centerpiece of an Indian feast. In Hawaiian culture, the bride wears a wreath of tuberose and pikaki flowers around her head during the wedding. They have always been popular flowers for weddings and for leis.
Lisa Maliga has an interesting article on the tuberose at

The scent of the tuberose, like the jasmine and other highly scented flowers, cannot be extracted through steam distillation like other scents. Instead the scent is captured using a technique called enfleurage, which was first developed in ancient Egypt but was used extensively in Grasse, France. It is explained at this web site
A mixture of pork, lard and beef suet is smeared on a glass plate placed in a wooden frame. The fat absorbs the scent and the flowers are replaced with fresh until the fat is thoroughly saturated with the scent. Then the fragrant oil is extracted from the fat by dissolving it in an alcohol solvent. This mixture is chilled and filtered to remove all the fat. Then the alcohol is evaporated leaving the very expensive substance known as absolute of tuberose. Nowadays the scent is more likely to be extracted using a chemical solvent.

I found a wonderful blog about perfumes by Victoria who featured tuberose as the scent of the week in June of 2005. I love her description of the scent: “Solvent extracted tuberose absolute opens up with a faint green note before warming into a sweet jasmine-like scent underscored by a rubbery accord. It vacillates between assuming a mineral and a warm skin form, while the creamy layers of honeyed sweetness undulate slowly over this odd, but fascinating accord. It never remains at rest, however, and while the absolute remains on the skin, the radiant floral sweetness paired with the profound sensuality of the dark carnal base never ceases to mystify.”
See her site for more information and more comments:

For a chemical analysis of this scent, see this interesting site:

According to this website
it takes 40,000 tuberoses to make one pound of tuberose enfluerage. (Of course, they are trying to sell their very expensive perfume.)

In the language of the flowers, the tuberose means voluptuousness, sentiment, dangerous pleasures, and le plus loin, le plus cher (the farther away, the dearer).

Connolly, Shane, Table Flowers, Trafalgar Square Publishing 1996
Elliott, Brent, An Illustrated History of the Garden Flower, Royal Horticultural Society 2001
Seaton, Beverly, The Language of the Flowers: A History, University of Virginia Press 1995

The photograph of the tuberose comes from the web site of the Mellano family florists who will sell you tuberoses via the Internet:

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Puffball (Lycoperdon)

The plant of the day in the French Republican calendar is the puffball lycoperdon. I was surprised to find out that it’s a mushroom, the first one I've encountered in the French Republican calendar, but it makes sense to feature a mushroom as we slide into autumn.

It’s called a puffball because it releases its spores through a break in the top of the sphere-like body as seen in the top photograph on this web site which features other cool pictures of puffballs as well:

And what of lycoperdon?
In this web publication of The Life of the Fly by J Henri Fabre I found this charming description of this childhood discovery of mushrooms in a little spinny near his house:
Soon, I find others, differing in size, shape and color. It is a real treat for my prentice eyes. Some are fashioned like bells, like extinguishers, like cups; some are drawn out into spindles, hollowed into funnels, rounded into hemispheres. I come upon some that are broken and are weeping milky tears; I step on some that, instantly, become tinged with blue; I see some big ones that are crumbling into rot and swarming with worms. Others, shaped like pears, are dry and open at the top with a round hole, a sort of chimney whence a whiff of smoke escapes when I prod their under side with my finger. These are the most curious. I fill my pockets with them to make them smoke at my leisure, until I exhaust the contents, which are at last reduced to a kind of tinder.
And a little further on Fabre describes his research into the names of mushrooms:
The same books told me the name of the one that had amused me so much with its smoking chimney. It is called the puffball in English, but its French name is the vesse-de-loup. I disliked the expression, which to my mind smacked of bad company. Next to it was a more decent denomination: Lycoperdon; but this was only so in appearance, for Greek roots sooner or later taught me that Lycoperdon means vesse-de-loup and nothing else. The history of plants abounds in terms which it is not always desirable to translate. Bequeathed to us by earlier ages less reticent than ours, botany has often retained the brutal frankness of words that set propriety at defiance.
And what does vesse-de-loup mean? Apparently wolf-fart. See this lovely autumnal photograph of pear-shaped wolf-farts in Tannersville, New York:
Another common name for it is the devil’s snuffball according to this website:
which also says that it is in season from late summer through late autumn and edible when young (before the white flesh of the mushroom turns brown).

This website explains where to find them and how to tell them apart from poisonous mushrooms that look similar when young:

But I will leave the final word for my favorite gardener, Paghat. She took the photograph above of the young puffballs in August (in my region). She also provides many interesting facts about puffballs, including warnings about when and how to pick them:

Friday, August 18, 2006

Plums, Greengages and Damsons

The plant of the first day of Fructidor, the month of the French Republican calendar which derives its name from fruit, is appropriately enough the plum. I didn’t think I liked plums until I had one at the Farmer’s Market two weeks ago. It was sweet and firm, not at all the mushy, rather tasteless fruit that I was used to from supermarkets.

Of course, whenever I feature a fruit, the best place to look for information is Mark Rieger’s Fruit Crops website and so that’s where I will send you for all the details.
But I’ll summarize some of the salient details below.

Plums are members of the Rose family, like other stone fruits (like peaches, cherries and apricots). There are several hybrids that cross apricots and plums including the plumcot (50% apricot, 50% plum), the aprium (75% apricot and 25% plum) and the most popular, the pluot (75% plum, 25% apricot).

There is also a wild plum native to Europe called the damson.. Wikipedia has a special article on damsons:
They are named after the town of Damascus and are quite old. Archaeological digs of Roman sites in Britain have turned up remnants of damson plums. The skins were used to create purple dye. Because they are so acidic, they are used mostly for jellies, preserves and making damson wine. Patience Gray mentions that they make an “astonishingly delicious and perfumed jam,” but are not favored by her Italian neighbors because it's hard to separate the pit from the fruit. According to Isabella Beeton, these plums were brought to Italy, around 114 B..

Prunus domestica is indigenous to western Asia and was brought to America by Spanish missionaries. It is mostly grown in California where most of the plums grown are converted into prunes (that is, dried plums). There is also a plum native to China, prunus salicina, which was brought to Japan in the 1800's and then to the US (where it is sometimes called the Japanese plum). These include the Satsumas and Santa Rosas, the plum most often sold in grocery stores.

I’ve always loved the name greengage which is the name of a plum (also called reine-claude) according to Larousse Gastronomique which grows in France and ripens at the end of July, while the golden greengage (claude doree) ripes towards the end of August. Beeton says the name comes from the Gage family, who first brought it to England from the Chartreuse monastery in Paris. Another European plum, the Mirabelle, a small round plum, yellow in color streaked with red, also ripens at the end of August (and according to Grey is the ancestor of the damson). The LR also mentions a varieties called Saint Catherine, the early yellow, the quetshe (used to make the famous liqueur, slivovitz) and the ente or Agen plum, a medium-sized fruit, pinkish violet in color which ripens in Septemebr and is usually dried and turned into prunes.

This website lists several American plum cultivars
including Empresses, Yakimas, Casselmans and the Santa Rosa plum which was developed by Luther Burbank and named after the California city where it is grown. Plums with yellow flesh include Santa Rosa, Black Amber, Nubiana, Laroda, El Dorado, Kelsey and Friar. Plums with red flesh go by the names of Elephant Heart and Black Beauty. Freestone. Green-fleshed plums, like Italian and Standard, are usually used to make prunes (dried plums).

The more research I do the more I realize that the family history of plums could be a long and fascinating article all on its own. Patience Gray, writing about Italian foods, says (following Roach) that domestic plums are a cross between sloes (prunus spinosa) and cherry plums (prunus cerasfiera), a marriage which she believes took place in forests in the Caucasus where both species abound.

In Asia, plums are often dried or pickled and used in salty plum drinks and as toppings for shaved ice. Plums are known for their laxative qualities. The plum is used to make a colorless alcohol called slivovitz which is the national drink of Serbia:
There’s a slivovitz festival in Two Harbors, Minnesota on September 9, 2006:

Beeton, Mrs. Isabella, The Book of Household Management, 1851, facsimile edition, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969
Gray, Patience, Honey from a Weed, Harper and Row 1986
Montagné, Prosper, The New Larousse Gastronomique, Crown 1960
Roach, F.A., Cultivated Fruits of Britain, Oxford: Blackwell 1985

Plum (variety Tucker). Watercolor, 1894 from the National Agricultural Library of the United States of America Department of Agriculture found at Wikipedia

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Snapdragon, Toadflax and Butter & Eggs

It’s the 30th of Thermidor (the month whose name means hot) in the French Republican calendar and since the day ends in 0, instead of a plant, the calendar features a tool, in this case the Mill or Moulin. Where would we be without the mill, which for centuries has provided us with flour and the ability to make bread, pasta, even baby food?

But instead of mills, I’m featuring the plant associated with St Mamas, whose feast day this is, and whose flower, according to Pip Wilson is the snapdragon toadflax.

I don’t know much about St Mamas or why he would be associated with the snapdragon toadflax. He is a saint honored in the Byzantine culture who spent time in the wilderness. He is known as the Patron Saint of Animals according to this web site which also features a wonderful icon of him seated on a lion with a smaller white animal that looks like a unicorn in front of him:
Here are some more great pictures of him including the mystery animal:

I also found some wonderful pictures of the little wildflower: snapdragon toadflax at paghat’s marvelous garden site:
It’s called toadflax because it resembles a toad and flax. Its Latin name is linaria maroccana, linaria from the root word for flax and Maroccana because it’s native to Morocco. It’s a member of the Scrophulariaceae family.

Mrs. Grieve provides some information about a relative, Linaria vulgaris, also known as butter and eggs from her Modern Herbal (1931):
You can’t miss butter and eggs—they really do look like eggs scrambled with lots of butter. According to an article published by the University of Washington, yellow toadflax (linaria vulgaris) is a Class C noxious weed in our state and “a principal weed for control” in King County.
I think that means I should be able to find it on my walk to work tomorrow. I’ll let you know.

If you want to learn how to play the Yule game, snapdragon, you can read the article at my web site:
Or account published by Robert Chambers in his Book of Days (1869):

Illustration of a snapdragon from

Cool snapdragon pictures from the Department of Botany at the University of Wisconsin:

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Our Lady of the Grapes and Grain

Today is the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, in which the Christian goddess, Mary, assumes the role earlier played by Hecate and Artemis (who were honored on the full moon of August) as the protectress of plants, particularly grapes (it's almost time for the wine harvest) and grain.

Naogeorgus, a Protestant sceptic who wrote many scathing poems about Popish rituals, had this to say about the Assumption:

The blessed virgin Mary's feast, hath here his place and time
Wherein departing from the earth, she did the heavens climb:
Great bundles then of herbs to Church, the people fast do bear,
The which against all hurtful things, the Priest doth hallow there.
Thus kindle they and nourish still, the peoples' wickedness
And vainly make them to believe, whatever they express:
For sundry witchcrafts, by these herbs are wrought and diverse charms.
And cast into the fire, are thought to drive away all harms,
And ever painful grief from man, or beast for to expel
Far otherwise than nature, or the word of God does tell.

In central Europe, this was called Our Lady's Herb Day. Gertrud Mueller Nelson tells about how her mother kept the holiday alive by taking her daughters on walks, gathering wild grasses, a custom I've adopted in Seattle. It's amazing how many kinds of wild grass grow on my city block.

For more, see Pip Wilson's description of the holiday at his Book of Days:
which includes quotes from my article on the day at the calendar at my web site:

Nelson, Gertrud Mueller, To Dance With God: Family Ritual and Community Celebration, Paulist Press 1986

Monday, August 14, 2006


The plant of the day for Thermidor 27 (also known as August 14) is Rapeseed (Brassica napus). The common name is derived from the Old English word (rapum) for another member of the Brassica family, the turnip. Other plants in the Brassica family include mustard and broccoli.

Rapeseed oil has been used for centuries as lamp oil, and cooking oil. A particular cultivar, Canola, is used to make canola oil, the third leading vegetable oil in the world (after soybean and palm oil). Rapeseed oil is also used in the manufacture of biodiesel fuel. Rapeseed plants are primarily grown as fodder but the greens are edible and are similar to bok choy and kale.

I learned all of this from the great Wikipedia article which has much more information and great pictures:

Although the appearance of rapeseed in the French Republican Calendar which was created in 1793 indicates that this plant has been used by humans for a long time, there are several controversies swirling round rapeseed. Monsanto created a genetically modified version of rapeseed that is resistant to Round-up, a pesticide used to kill noxious weeds. This genetically modified version cross-pollinated with other rapeseed and Monsanto then successfully sued Canadian farmers whose rapeseed crops were found to contain their patented modified version.

The picture of a field of rapeseed comes from this website which offers classes on making biodiesel fuel:

The closeup of the flower comes from the Centre for Research in Environmental Science at the University of the West of England at:

Thursday, August 10, 2006


Excellent herbs had our fathers of old
Excellent herbs to ease their pain
Alexanders & Marigold,
Eyebright, Orris, & Elecampane
Basil, Rocket, Valerian, Rue,
(Almost singing themselves they run)
Vervain, Dittany, Call-me-to-you
Cowslip, Melilot, Rose of the Sun.
Anything green that grew out of the mould
Was an excellent herb to our fathers of old.
-Rudyard Kipling(865-1936)

I've missed doing a flower a day so I'm back with the flower of the day according to the French Republican calendar: Yellow Starwort, which is also known as Elecampane, Horse Heal and Elf Dock.

Mrs. Grieve has a splendid long explanation of the history and medicinal uses of this herb:

Also see the Wikipedia article at:

I’m sad but it doesn’t look like this plant grows in my area. Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs says it grows from Nova Scotia to North Carolina and as far west as Missouri.

Thanks to paghat ( for the great quote from Kipling.

Illustration from Koehler’s Medicinal Plants (1887) found at Wikipedia

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Pilfered Roses

Although I went looking for flax yesterday, I didn't find any. However, I learned many interesting things about it at two websites.

Paghat's article on blue flax includes a gorgeous photograph
while her article on the scarlet flax
mentions that flax was sacred to both Ra, the Egyptian Sun-God and Isis. And that while
scarlet flax was a symbol for male virility and female fertility, blue flax represents "sacred

Chelsie VandaVeer also has wonderful articles on flax including "How Did Flax Preserve History?"
and "How Did Flax Revolutionize Clothing?"
which describes the very interesting process (wet-retting) by which flax fibers are extracted from the plant to be used in making linen. Another article, "What is Lint?" discusses the various names for flax and the derivation of the word lint (from the same root as linen):

Meanwhile I wanted to let you know about my rose adventure. I asked my Summer Online class to adopt a plant ally and I adopted the rose. Then I realized that I don't own a rose. Which made it difficult to obtain unsprayed rose petals. I realized I could order them from a herb company, including my friends at Ravencroft Gardens (they offer rosa rugosa petals)
but that would take a while to get and I was impatient. So I went out and bought a rose, at my local garden store, City Peoples, but most of its petals fell off in the transition between the garden store and my garden.

Then one day while walking Pepe, my grand-dog, I noticed a lovely red rose blooming behind the fence that encircles the lot on my block where once stood the green house which burnt down last year. The house was razed about six months after the fire and the basement filled in with dirt, then a big chain link fence was put up around the perimeter and the lot has been vacant ever since. There's a lovely rose plant with deep red, fragrant roses that is blooming valiantly right inside the fence. I tried to pick the ripe and ready rose petals by sticking my arm through the chain links but couldn't reach the most luscious blooms. So today I enlisted the aid of my daughter, who is always willing to break the law. After also being baffled by the constraints of the space in the chain links, she went up and over the fence and filled a cup full with rose petals for me. Then she found a break in the fence so she could get out easily and I will be able to get in more easily the next time I need roses.

I came home and made a rose simple syrup (1 cup water, 1/2 cup sugar and about a 1/2 cup rose petals (with the white cut out) boiled together, then left to sit for about a half hour). It's not as fragrant or as strong as the lavender simple syrup I've been enjoying but it's an exquisite color and it has a faint flavor of rose. I think I will wait a few days, gather more roses, and try again, using double the roses this time.

Last weekend I was in Victoria, British Columbia, with my niece (it was her first trip out of the country) and we went looking for rose-flavored Turkish Delight which we found at a British Candy Shop on Yates Street. Apparently we are not the only Americans to go seeking Turkish Delight after watching Chronicles of Narnia (I haven't seen the movie--just read the books). This article describes the jump in popularity and provides a recipe:
But we are unusual in that we both loved the rose-flavored version (we also bought the lemon-flavored kind but it was no more interesting than a lemon drop). According to Susan Reilly in this article "Turkish Delight Sales Jump After Chronicles of Narnia," sales have increased but most Americans find the rose flavor too subtle or floral for their tastes. I'm with Edmund, however, in thinking that it's one of the most delicious candies I've ever tasted (although I did find the sweetness and gooiness (it's like a squishy gumdrop) rather disconcerting).

Off to look for some almond oil...

Friday, August 04, 2006

Flower List for August

I’ve been missing from my blog for a while because I spent the last month writing a Flower a Day entry for a select subscription mailing list. Then I got an invitation to go to Ireland during the month of August. By the time my trip was postponed I was so looking forward to a break from the relentless pace, that I decided to return to my blog.

But this time I’d like to do it a little differently. So far I’ve been treating the blog like an article: I find the good sources, do all the research and then distill it down into something to share with readers. I haven’t yet explored the truly personal, soul-baring aspect of blogging. Nor have I invited my readers to collaborate with me the way a good blogger should.

So I thought I would begin by letting you know the flowers for the week and hoping that you will go out and experiment with these plants and let me know what you find, either on the Web or in your garden. I will do the same and report on what I learn.

I take my plant recommendations from the French Republican Calendar
in which the months are named after their seasonal qualities (we’re in the middle of Thermidor which means Hot) and each day has a plant, animal or tool assigned to it.
The plants are usually seasonal and useful.

I also sometimes look at Flora’s Dial,
a calendar compiled by J Wesley Hanson in 1853 which assigns a flower to every day of the year. I find it annoying and arbitrary. It looks like he chose flowers at random from an alphabetical list, because so often the flowers appear in runs of similar flowers or initials, with little relationship to the season.

And sometimes when neither list really gets me excited, I find a flower associated with the saint of the day at Pip Wilson’s almanac:

Here’s a list of the plant possibilities for the next few days:
Aug 4 // Thermidor 17 Fri
Flax (lin)
Morning glory

Aug 5 // Thermidor 18 Sat
Almond (amande)
100-leaved rose
St Mary of Snows, the Egyptian water lily (Nelumbo nilotica)

Aug 6 // Thermidor 19 Sun
Gentian (gentiane)
Transfiguration, Meadow saffron (colchicum autumniae)

Aug 7 //Thermidor 20 Mon
Lock (ecluse), a tool since this is a day that ends in 0
St Cajetan, common amaranth

I'm going to look for flax, eat almonds, wander down the block to see if the autumn crocuses are up yet (they look like ghosts springing out of the dead earth but I think it may be too early for them) and write about/eat amaranth. I'll let you know about my adventures--you let me know about yours.