Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Maskal Daisies/Coreopsis

According to my holiday calendar,

in Ethiopia people celebrate Holy Cross on September 27 by building huge structures of logs, set up like teepees, decorated with yellow Maskal daisies and burnt at night. I found one web site which also refers to this festival and mentions the daisies:

But what are they? A quick Google search produces only one reference to maskal daisies in a scientific paper called “Medicine in Ethiopia” by C. S. Leithead in which he says they are Coreopsis boraniana. I’ve not been able to find this species mentioned in any of the articles on Coreopsis but it seems likely that the daisies are Coreopsis which likes to grow in hot, dry climates and blooms through November, even in the soggy Northwest. The one thing that makes me wonder if this is the same plant is that most of my references say that Coreopsis is native to North America.

The name Coreopsis comes from the Greek word koris which means Bedbug because the seeds look like small black bugs. It’s also called Tickseed for the same reason. But the flowers look like cheerful yellow daisies, with toothed petals, and they are members of the Aster family. They are sometimes also called Calliopsis, according to Wikipedia.
Askwith says that Calliopsis is the name for the annual form while Coreopsis applies to the perennial version of this plant.

Paghat, as usual, has some lovely photographs of Coreopsis growing in her Northwest garden and useful accounts of how it grows

Chelsie VandaVeer has written a poetic description of Coreopsis which is illustrated with a lovely photograph of the flowers of Coreopsis leavenworthii which grows in damp places in Florida::
Her description of coming upon a field of golden Coreopsis echoes the description about the Ethiopian festival when “the meadows are yellow with the brilliant Maskal daisy.”

Askwith, Herbert, editor, The Complete Guide to Garden Flowers: An Encyclopedia of Garden Planning, A.S. Barnes and Company 1961
Levine, Donald, Wax and Gold: Tradition and Innovation in Ethiopian Culture, University of Chicago Press, 1965, p. 62
Perl, Lilia, Ethiopia: Land of the Lion, William Morrow 1972, pp.72-3

Coreopsis lanceolata from J.S. Peterson @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


Since this is a day in the French Republican calendar that ends in a 5, the 5th of Vendimiare to be exact, there is an animal rather than a plant for today: the horse.

So I’m going to take my plant of the day from Flora’s Dial which lists the Dock as the flower for September 26. This seems appropriate as the dock in my neighborhood has reached a glorious stage of rusty redness. In my neighborhood, it grows in vacant lots and untended parkways and is considered a weed. But the roots have been used in medicine and the leaves consumed for centuries.

Dock is the common name for a plant (Rumex) in the Buckwheat family., which also contains buckwheat, sorrel and rhubarb. The name Rumex comes from the Latin for “to suck,” because the leaves of the plant were eaten to relieve thirst, according to Silverman. Mrs. Grieve says the plants were originally members of the Lapathum genus, from the Greek word meaning to cleanse. The name dock comes from the Anglo-Saxon docce.
Look at the Wikipedia article on dock for a staggering list of varieties:

Docks generally grow three to four feet tall. Flowers bloom on spikes at least twelve inches tall from June through September in the eastern United States, according to Silverman. These spikes become rusty brown in the autumn. Silverman recommends looking at the flowers and seeds of Dock through a magnifying glass. She writes: “Each tiny flower dangles on a short stalk as thin and fragile as a thread. As the seed develops, the calyx, resembling a frilly miniature bonnet, encloses the seed much as an old-fashioned bonnet enclosed a person’s head.”

Paghat in one of her wonderful garden articles describes the conditions under which she grows Bloody Dock in the Northwest:
Paghat also grows Western Dock (Rumex occidentalis)::

Eating Dock
Round-Leaved Dock (Rumex obtusifolius) was sometimes called Butter Dock because the broad leaves were used to wrap butter. Dock leaves have a sour or lemony flavor because of the presence of oxalic acid. Paghat uses the young leaves like chard or spinach. Silverman quotes Julia Morton in saying that dock is a favorite pot herb in the Southern United States, preferred over collard and turnip greens.Because oxalic acide can interfere with the absorption of minerals, it should not be eaten in large quantities or by people with rheumatism, arthritis, gout or kidney stones.

The oxalic acid is neutralized when cooked. Paghat recommends frying dock leaves in oil with dandelion leaves. The stems can be used as a substitute for rhubarb (to which it is closely related) and the seeds can be ground like buckwheat and used to make flour.

Healing with Dock
Perhaps because of the reddish color of the stems (and the veins in the leaves of Bloody Dock), dock was recommended for treating blood diseases and jaundice.

According to Paghat, Native Americans used Western Dock to treat rheumatism by steaming with it in a sweat lodge. Roots and leaves were roasted and mashed then applied as a poultice to treat wounds and sores. According to Silverman, the Pennsylvania Dutch made a tea from the root and drank it as a tonic and to treat liver problems. Dock was also an ingredient in a tenth-century Anglo-Saxon recipe for treating people afflicted with Elf Disease.

Dock leaves are often been recommended as a great way to relieve the sting of nettles, and fortunately, they often grow near each other. There is a little rhyme to say when applying it a nettle sting:
Nettle in, Dock out,
Dock in, Nettle out
Nettle in, Dock out,
Dock rub Nettle out

Chelsie Vandaveer in her article, “What was Green Sauce?” describes a herbal remedy, recommended by Gerard, the Elizabethan herbalist, made from dock or sorrel, vinegar and sugar, and used to soothe the stomach, quench thirst and cool a fever.

Mrs. Grieve says that Rumex Crispus (so named for the curliness of its leaves) is the one most often used medicinally.
The leaves should be dug up in spring. She suggests making a syrup by boiling ½ pound of crushed root in a pint of syrup and then taking this by the teaspoon. Alternatively, you can make an infusion by pouring boiling water over 1 ounce of the powdered root and taking this by the wineglassful. She also recommends a homeopathic remedy, made of the plant before it flowers, which is effective in treating tickling coughs. Michael Moore uses dock to treat sluggish digestion or constipation.

Other Uses:
The seedheads are attractive in dried flower arrangements and a yellow-gold to tan dye can be made from the roots. Silverman recommends leaving the seedheads on the plant as food for the birds during the winter (they do look like those long spikes of millet you buy in the store, except these are rusty red).

Plants of the Future has articles specific to many different varieties of dock:

The great photograph of Rumex Crispus under a stormy Northwest sky was taken by Ronald Taylor for his book, Northwest Weeds.

deWit, H.C. D., Plants of the World, The Higher Plants I, Dutton 1966
Moore, Michael, Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West, Red Crane Books 1993
Silverman, Maida, A City Herbal: Lore, Legend and Uses of Common Weeds, Ash Tree Publishing 1997
Taylor, Ronald J., Northwest Weeds, Mountain Press Publishing Company 1990

Monday, September 25, 2006

Autumn Crocus

The plant of the day for Vendemiaire 4 in the French Republican calendar is the autumn crocus or colchique. This is a plant I mentioned briefly in my article on naked ladies (amaryllis belladonna) in honor of my birthday on September 4.

The autumn crocus (colchicum autumnale) is also sometimes known as a naked lady because it has the same quality as the amaryllis belladonna of arising from the ground without any leaves. And although the amaryllis belladonna blooms on my birthday in Southern California where I was born (Burbank, to be exact), the autumn crocus blooms on my birthday here in Seattle where I live now. The autumn crocus is also known as meadow saffron and colchicum.

I really wouldn’t have known much about this plant, as it is not mentioned in any of my garden books, except that I did quite a bit of research (which I didn’t post) a few days ago on saffron which was the plant of the day for Vendemiaire 2. The saffron crocus (crocus sativa) is a member of the Iris family while the autumn crocus is a member of the Lily family. They look alike and bloom at the same time but the saffron crocus is highly valued as a spice while the autumn crocus is deadly.

The two websites I recommend for information on saffron, Gernot Katzer’s spice web site:
and Paghat’s article on the many myths that swirl around the saffron crocus:
both briefly mention the autumn crocus.

The autumn crocus grows from corms and puts forth long slender green leaves in the spring that can be mistaken for wild onions or garlic (which can be a fatal mistake—see below). It produces its fruit, a green pod in the center of the leaves, in spring. It blooms in autumn, coming directly out of the ground without any leaves. The flowers are pink and fragile, almost ghostly on their long tubular stems. Paghat in her interesting article suggests that the crocus was associated with Persephone and that they might mark the spot where she descended into the Underworld in fall just as they mark her emergence in spring. Chelsie VandaVeer in her article “What Plant was Named for the Homeland of a Sorceress,”
says the autumn crocus was once called “mysteria,” possibly because they were used in the Eleusinian Mysteries. It’s hard to know if the flower she describes is the saffron crocus or the autumn crocus.

The genus name, colchicum, was given to it by Linneaus after Colchis, an ancient region on the Black Sea, south of the Caucausus Mountains. Jason of Greek legend went there looking for the Golden Fleece and met up with Medea, a famous sorceress and poisoner. She made an ointment for him to rub on his limbs, shield and spear which enabled him yoke two fire-breathing bulls. The autumn crocus was said to have sprung up from the blood of the crucified Prometheus.

The plant is highly toxic, with an effect similar to arsenic poisoning according to this website:
This case study describes the death of an older man who ate autumn crocus believing it to be wild garlic and died three days later:

Yet the active alkaloid, colchicine, has been used to treat gout, and also as an anti-cancer treatment. Chelsie VandaVeer has an article, “What ancient medical treatment is still being used today?” explaining how this works:

Wikipedia has a very short article on the autumn crocus

The glorious photograph comes from Wikipedia.

Saturday, September 23, 2006


The start of autumn equinox and the start of the month of Vendemiaire (the harvest) in the French Republican Calendar rightfully features the grape.

I grew up under a grapevine. When my parents moved into their new ranch house in Van Nuys, California, they had only a square concrete patio outside the brand new picture window of the living room. I was born about nine months later and pretty soon after that my father built a trellis over the patio and planted a grape vine. When I was young, I remember sitting under that leafy green shade; I also remember the purple stains the grapes made when they dropped on the patio. My mother probably protested about this and eventually the grapevine disappeared to be replaced by that corrugated green plastic which was so popular then.

I don’t remember that we ever made anything out of the grapes we grew but my Uncle Bob, in his back yard in Temple City, grew many plants which he made into wine. Whether this was just natural thriftiness (no plant shall go unused) or a fondness for fermented beverages, I’m not sure, but I suspect the former as Uncle Bob was Swiss (almost as thrifty as the Scotch) and the wine was not so attractive that one could guzzle it (I remember finding it quite repulsive as a child when offered a sip at Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner).

Still I believe I was at born at the tail end of these two trends: the growing of grapevines in home gardens (I’ve only seen two in the years since then—one is at my P-Patch garden but it’s purely decorative) and home wine-making. In the intervening years, the growing of grape vines and the making of wine have become big business.

In the past few years I got interested in wine and began studying it pretty seriously. It was my last passion before this new obsession with plants. I found many wine writers whose writing I admire, particularly Jay McInerney whose columns on wine for House and Garden are collected in a wonderful book of essays, Bacchus and Me, Jancis Robinson, one of the first female wine writers, and a true poet of wine, Terry Theise, who writes about German wines, mostly Reislings--his lyrical writing is available on the web at:

I’ve also attended many wine tastings and classes (I just love the vocabulary and ritual of wine) and read many books about the wine-making process. My favorites include A Cultivated Life by Joy Sterling about her family’s winery, and A Very Good Year by Mike Weiss, a journalist’s (somewhat cynical) view of the process by which a Las Vegas casino owner creates his own winery and a wine designed to win accolades.

But not until last year did it really sink in that wine is made from grapes. I was at my local Whole Foods and noticed a grape variety that I knew only as a wine varietal—I think it was probably Muscat of Alexandria. I took one bite and was amazed to recognize the flavor. The journey from grape to wine is such a complex and interesting one. I don’t believe there is any fruit that is so cosseted, processed, praised and transformed as the grape. And, of course, there is the magic of it all--the transformation mystery of harvest.

Here’s a web site that lists all the varieties of grapes used in making wine and shows pictures of most of them:

(citing the Food and Agriculture Organization) reports that 71% of all grapes grown in the world are used to make wine. 27% are eaten as fresh fruit and 2% as dried fruit—raisin is just the French word for grape. Some grapes are used to make grape juice and sweeteners. Also the area dedicated to vineyards is increasing by about 2% every year.

This seems to be true where I live. Over the last few years several wineries have opened in Seattle itself, although the grapes they use are grown in eastern Washington. And every time I go to my favorite wine-growing region of Washington, the Klickitat, there are a few more wineries and lots more vineyards. Cascade Cliffs is one of my favorites:
Bob Lorkowski, who I first met when he was delivering wine to a customer on my block, grows Italian varieties which I enjoy, like Nebbiolo and Barbera.

I am still trying to take after my Uncle Bob and make wine from fruit that is closer at hand. But I have not yet succeeded in making anything drinkable.

If you want some recipes for making wine from a variety of fruits (and even vegetables and herbs), check out Jack Keller’s comprehensive web site:

The Vine is one of the trees (plants) featured in the Celtic tree calendar which Robert Graves proposed. It rules the month of August and has the power of prophecy, perhaps referring to the power of wine to inspire truth-telling (in vino veritas). Dionysus is the Greek god of the vine. But he was originally god of vegetation, ruling fruit trees and grapes. He supposedly traveled throughout Asida Minor, Egypt and India, spreding the use of the vine. The Roman goddess Venus was also associated with the vineyard, in her role as keeper of gardens and tilled fields.

Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, edited by Maria Leach, Harper and Row 1971
Murray, Liz and Colin, The Celtic Tree Oracle: A System of Divination, illustrated by Vanessa Card, St. Martins 1988

Crimson Seedless grapes taken by Bob Nichols. USDA Image Number K7721-3.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

stone roses

One of the things I love about this blog is the way it wakes me up to plants.

I wrote about sedums and then I drove my car to work (yes! shocking--one of the main reasons I took this job, besides the money and the mission statement of the organization (it's a writing center) is that it's within walking distance of my house). So it wasn't until this morning, when I walked my daughter's chihuahua, Pepe, around the block that I noticed all the sedums in my neighborhood. These plants have been here for years and I just noticed them today.

My favorites were the sempervivums, which were the members of the Crassulacaeae family that I didn't feature in yesterday's articles. Some of them go by the name of hen and chicks and I think that's what I saw this morning. Paghat, as usual, has a wonderful article on them:

One of their other common names is "stone rose" and that's exactly what they look like. I love the idea of these growing all over the stone windowsills and slate roofs of old houses. I also saw some love links (these are members of the sedum family, which I recognized from Paghat's site:

Hope you find some sedums in your life.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Sedum (Stonecrop)

How bright atop the wall
The stonecrop's fire.
Robert Nichols (1893-1944)

On Sunday, I went to the Library Book Sale—I always go on half price day. Not that I need more books. I have ten nine-foot shelves of books, plus two huge bookcases, both of which hold about 200 books each and a bunch of brick and board shelves in the hall that hold my art books. I also have a table piled high with books and folders that has become my Flower of the Day headquarters. But I can’t resist half-price day at the book sale: paperbacks for a quarter, hardbacks for 50 cents.

Most of the books I bought were old gardening books. Each one had a different way of categorizing plants: one shows them by families, one by their country of origin, one by the seasons in which they flourish and another alphabetically by common name.

The one that organized plants by season is my favorite and it corresponds with many of the plants I saw on a tour of my friend Dan’s garden during his birthday party this weekend. I asked about a plant that I thought was a houseleek but everyone else knew it as stonecrop or sedum. In fact, the specimen in question, I believe is Sedum telephium, Autumn Joy which seems like a good plant to feature as we approach the equinox.

The sedums are members of the Crassulaceae family, from a Latin root word which means “thick or dense,” the same root which gives us Crass. (The plant I know as the houseleek comes from another genera in this family, the sempervivum). They come from subtropical Africa, the Mediterranean and temperate parts of Asia. The name sedum comes from Latin, meaning to sit, because they tend to creep along, low to the ground. Most of the members of this family are succulents: they like to live on rocks and mountains, hence the common name stone crop. When more people lived in stone houses, these plants often grew on slates roofs and even windowsills, as in these lines from a poem by Wordsworth:
The yellow stone-crop suffered to take root
Along the window's edge, profusely grew,
Blinding the lower panes.

There are many different kinds of sedums. My favorite garden writer, Paghat, has many wonderful articles on some of these varieties. I’ll summarize some of her comments in case you don’t want to click on all the links but then you’ll miss her gorgeous photos.

Sedum acre is called golden stonecrop or yellow wall pepper. It has yellow flowers and a peppery fragrance when crushed. Paghat lists many other names for it including Biting Stonecrop, Prick Madam, Wall Ginger, Mousetail, Bird's Bread, Jack-of-the-Buttery, Golden Carpet, Gold Chain, Small Houseleek, Mossy Stonecrop, & Creeping Tom. In England apparently it blooms in June and July so I might have to move it up in the flower calendar.

Sedum telephium is sometimes called orpine, midsummers men, long life or everlasting. I believe this is the plant that’s growing in my friend Dan’s garden. Mrs. Grieve says the species name comes from Telephus, the son of Hercules, who discovered its virtues.
It is taller than other sedums and has pink flowers. At midsummer in England it’s used in love divinations: two orpines are laid side by side and if they twine towards each other, that augurs well for the relationship.

Sedum sarmentosum is a stonecrop from Asia which is sometimes called Graveyard Moss because of the way it grows in old graveyards. It is also called Stringy or Trailing Stonecrop, because of the way it grows and Yellow Moss, Star Sedum or Gold Moss because of its yellow flowers.

The succulent leaves of sedums are edible. They can be added to salads to give them spice (they have a peppery flavor), fried with other vegetables or added to soup. The sedums with yellow flowers have mild toxicity, but when fried, they lose their toxicity. Paghat offers this recipe for a relish: fry sedum leaves with slivers of sweet bell peppers and onions at a high heat in olive oil until the onions are browned and bell peppers nearly translucent, then add pepper to taste and use as a relish on hotdogs or gardenburgers. Refrigerate for use as needed. Stonecrops with red flowers are fine to eat.

Sedums also have medicinal qualities. Mrs. Grieve writes that the leaves of White Stonecrop were often used in a soothing application for hemmorhoids while Biting Stonecrop taken internally got rid of worms. Sedum telephium is used as a remedy for diarrhea when the leaves are boiled in milk and taken three or four times a day: this is also good for the kidneys, piles and hemorrhages.

Paghat writes that Sedum acre (known by the name helluhnori) was recommended in a 1770 Icelandic herbal as a cure for jaundice, gallstones and respiratory illness. In China, Japan & Korea, sedum is sold as a medicinal herb under the name Chuipengcao or Chui pen cao. It is used as a general gastric & renal regulator. Sedum is a known source of herbal estrogen.

Here’s a great article on growing sedum in Texas:

Reference (one of my new old books):
deWit, H.C.D., Plants of the World: The Higher Plants I, Dutton 1966

Illustration found at Wikipedia:

Saturday, September 16, 2006


Missed posting my entry last night because I didn’t have access to the Internet. Not sure whether this is a problem with AOL or with my cable service provider Comcast. It’s happened three times in September so I need to do some detective work.

September 15 is the day of the chestnut in the French Republican calendar, and I did a bit of preliminary research. The chestnut in question is the sweet chestnut which is Castanea sativa. Sometimes known as the Spanish chestnut. There is also an American chestnut, Castanea dentata, which has been decimated by the chestnut blight. The name Catasnea comes from Catanis, a town in Thessaly (Greece) which was known for its chestnut trees. The ancient Greek name for the nut was Sardis glans, from the town in Turkey (the capital of Lydia) where the tree first grew. It’s a member of the Fagaceae or Beech family.

There is a famous chestnut tree in Sicily, known as the Tree of One Hundred Horses, under which Queen Joan of Aragon and her cavaliers sheltered during a storm in 1308. There is also an ancient chestnut tree in England which is said to have been planted in the time of King Egbert (800), although believes it probably dates from around 1100. The chestnut was probably brought to England by the Romans who ate the nuts. These old trees are magnificent, with trunks of quite impressive girth.

Of course the nuts are a great part of the appeal of the chestnut. To roast chestnuts,
Take a very sharp, small knife, and slit the chestnuts around the sides or slash with an X on the flat side. The slash should extend completely through the hard shell and the inner lining surrounding the meat. Place X-side up on a well-oiled cookie sheet and set in a pre-heated 400 oven. Bake until the shell pulls away from the tender inside, about 30 minutes. Roasted chestnuts are known as marrons glace in France. Marron is also the name of the free

The Wikipedia article says that if you want to preserve chestnuts through the winter you should cover them with sand. Any maggots in the chestnuts will work their way up through the sand to get air without disturbing any other chestnuts.

Roberta Sickler in her marvelous book, Rituals of the Hearth, provides the instructions above plus this recipe for Buttered Brussels Sprouts and Chestnuts:

1 lb chestnuts, roasted & peeled
1 lb small Brussels sprouts
4 T butter
1-1/2 t sugar
1/4 t paprika

Scrub the Brussels sprouts and drop them, still dripping, into a dry, heavy enamel pot. Add butter, put the pot over a low flame and roast until the sprouts turn golden-green, about 30 minutes. Add the sugar, paprika and roasted chestnuts and toss lightly to coat with butter. Sprinkle with salt and serve.

Mrs.Grieve provides this recipe for chestnut soup:
Scald, peel and scrape 50 large chestnuts; put these into a stewpan with 2 OZ. of butter, an onion, 4 lumps of sugar, and a little pepper and salt, and simmer the whole over a slow fire for three-quarters of an hour; then bruise the chestnuts in a mortar; remove the pulp into a stewpan, add a quart of good brown gravy, and having rubbed the purée through a Tammy, pour it into a stewpan; make it hot and serve with fried crusts.

For many more chestnut recipes, see this web site

Roasted chestnuts are also ground into flour and used to make bread and a coffee-like drink. They are rich in vitamins and minerals, complex carbohydrates and starch but lower in fat than other nuts. The Tsalagi (Cherokee) and Iroquois tribes used the nuts to make cakes, breads, gravies, soups and drinks.

The tree is often coppiced, that is, cut down to the stem to grow many small stems which are split to produce fencing material or fed to cattle and sheep. Although chestnut wood is of good quality, it grows in the same climates as oak, and oak is preferable as timber. In Italy, the wood is used for small items like fencing and shingles and also barrels for aging balsamic vinegar.

Sweet chestnut leaves are sometimes used as food wraps. They also regulate the ripening process of soft cheese, although I only found one cheese on a quick Google search (St. Marcellin) that was wrapped in chestnut leaves.

Sweet chestnut leaf infusions are said to relieve coughs, including coughs due to whooping cough and bronchitis. They have astringent and antibacterial properties that mean they help heal wounds when used as poultices. The Bach Flower Remedy made from Sweet Chestnut is recommended for extreme mental anguish.

In Greece, chestnuts, like walnuts, were called the acorns of Zeus. In Christian symbolism, they represent triumph over temptation, chastity and goodness. Hageneder says it is common practice in Southern France to put pictures of the saints in sweet chestnut trees. He also writes that in ancient China, these trees were the homes of the gods of the west.

Hageneder, Fred, The Meaning of Trees, Chronicle 2005
Mitchell, Alan and John Wilkinson, The Trees of Britain and Northern Europe, William Collins Sons and Company 1982
Pakenham, Thomas, Meetings with Remarkable Trees, Random House 1998

Thursday, September 14, 2006


It’s a bit overwhelming to contemplate writing about the plant of the day for Fructidor 28: maize or corn. So I’ll refer you to the excellent Wikipedia article on the subject:

The Latin name for corn is Zea mays, a name devised by Linnaeus based on the name for the plant told to Columbus by the Tahino people in 1492. Their name meant “the mother of all.” Maize is known was called Centli in Nahautl (Aztec), Ixim to the Maya and Rxoa for the Zapotecs. We call it corn in English because corn is the generic name for all grains.

Maize was first domesticated about 9,000 years ago in central Mexico. The wild plant, teosinte, from which maize may be derived, is native to the Balsas River area of southern Mexico. Like wheat, corn developed along with humans and could not survive in the wild. The earliest corn cobs found in archaelogical digs in the Oaxaca Valley date back 6,250 years.

In the Mayan account of the creation of the world, humans were made out of maize dough. The plant was revered as the source of life. An archaeologist, William Saturno, in 2003, uncovered a mural from before AD 100 showing the corn god and a woman with tamales on the back of a mighty serpent, emerging from a mountain. Saturno speculates that this was an attempt to reproduce the creation myth.
This picture showing the corn god comes from this web site:

Beginning around 1,500 BC, the cultivation of maize spread rapidly. It was the staple food of Central America, South America and the Caribbean. During the first millennium AD, it spread from Mexico up through Arizona into the Southwest and then Northeast of North America.

In the Southwest, maize was planted using the Three Sisters method of planting. Beans were planted to use the corn stalks as support and squash planted to keep weeds from growing underneath. Corn is planted in the spring and should be “knee-high by the Fourth of July.” There are many different types of maize. Some are grown for flour, others to be popped as popcorn and others to be eaten.

Maize is also made into alcohol: bourbon and chicha. Corn flour or cornmeal is used to make polenta, tortillas, grits and other dishes. Corn cobs have been used to make smoking pipes and also to make biofuel.

Corn is one of my favorite foods and one I consider a serious problem. Because I cannot stop eating it. Doesn’t matter what it is. Give me a bowl of popcorn (hopefully with lots of real butter) or a bag of corn chips or a package of red licorice (made of corn syrup) and I will be unable to stop eating them until they’re all gone. Is this addiction or an allergy?

Corn did cause serious problems for people when it spread across the world because a steady diet of mainly corn will produce malnutrition, due to lack of niacin.

Chelsie VandaVeer explains this well in her article on pellagra at:

Corn must be eaten with lime (which the Mexicans use to create tortillas), or alkali (in the form of ashes used by Native Americans), or protein sources like beans, chia, fish or meat, in order to acquire the complete range of amino acids necessary to for protein synthesis.

Here’s an article on how to make an authentic tortilla, which notes that the apprenticeship is long:

This article explains how the Chippewa made hominy using lye and cornmeal:

Mrs. Grieve recommends using corn silk as a treatment for cystitis and other bladder irritations. She also recommends corn mush as a diet for the invalid.

Chelsie VandaVeer writes about the festivals held by Native Americans in honor of the new corn in this article:
In another article on corn, she explains the origin of the term, “crackers,” for the hill people of the South, attributing it to their penchant for “cracked” corn.

A recent fad involves creating mazes out of maize, in somewhat the same way yew mazes were popular in the 19th century. Corn grows faster and is tall enough in one season to befuddle the wanderer. This web site provides a list of maize mazes:

I missed this landmark when I was traveling in South Dakota, but here’s a link to the Mitchell Corn Palace:
I found it on this great list of corn links;

Salvador, Ricardo, “Maize,” adaptation of an article originally published in The Encyclopedia of Mexico: History, Culture and Society, Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers 1997:

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Bitter Orange

The plant for Fructidor 26 in the French Republican calendar is bigarade, bitter orange.

One of the great joys of this Plant of the Day blog is learning about plants that would never otherwise come to my attention and this is certainly the case today as I had no idea what a bitter orange was.

This Wikipedia article provides a great introduction:
The species name is citrus aurantium, subspecies amara (which means bitter). It’s native to South Vietnam but is grown in Central and South America (particularly the West Indies and Brazil) and in Mediterranean countries, especially Sicily and Southern France.

According to this perfume web site, it was imported from China into India, Syria and Egypt and brought to Europe by the Crusaders. One of the most famous bitter orange trees grows in the garden of the convent of St Sabina in Rome:

It is also sometime known as the Seville orange. The tree has glossy leaves, wicked thorns and small orange fruits that are bitter tasting. See the comments at Dave’s Garden:

This academic article also contains some information about the plant:

The tree is often used as grafting stock for other citrus fruit. The flowers when distilled produce neroli essential oil and a hydrosol known as orange flower water. An oil made from the leaves and shoots is called petit grain. The fruit, though bitter, has more pectin than sweet oranges, and thus makes a great marmalade. The peels are used to make the liqueur Curacao (named after the island on which the bitter oranges grow) and to flavor Triple Sec.

The Bergamot orange, which produces the famous bergamot oil, used in perfume and tea is a variety of citrus aurantium. So is chinotto, citrus aurantium, myrtifolia, the myrtle-leaved orange tree native to Italy. And China has its own citrus aurantium, varieity dadai, the fruits of which are used in Chinese medicine and to celebrate Japanese new year (in much the way Westerners put oranges in Christmas stockings, as symbols of wealth and the sun).

Here’s a recipe for bitter orange marmalade from Greece:

And here’s a recipe for crispy duck salad with bitter orange vinaigrette from Rachel Ray:,1977,FOOD_9936_26823,00.html

According to Mrs. Grieve, in Grasse the blossoms are candied. Doesn’t that sound delicious?

Mandy Aftel says that orange blossom oil can be purchased in most Middle Eastern stores. It should be used with butter or cream to reinforce its flavor. She recommends adding a few drops of neroli oil to a sorbet. Or mixing orange flower water with honey and drizzling it over yogurt or splashing it on apples before baking them in an apple pie.

Medicinal Properties
This website lists an interesting number of medicinal uses from around the world:
The primary use seems to be as an aid in digestion, as seen in the summary at Plants for a Future:

Mr.s Grieve, surprisingly, has little to say about it as a medicine, except to warn against imbibing wine of bitter orange mixed with absinthe.

In America, it was marketed as an appetite suppressant after ephedrime was taken off the market. But because it contains synephrine, a stimulant similar to ephedrine, it can be dangerous.

Aftel, Mandy and Daniel Patterson, Aroma: The Magic of Essential Oils in Food and Fragrance, Artisan (Workman) 2004

Monday, September 11, 2006

Morning Glory

Last year at this time I invited the readers of my newsletter
to submit nominations for birthday flowers and Samantha of Long Island nominated the blue morning glory in honor of her birthday on September 11. She wrote:

On Long Island, the skies turn this color from just before my birthday to the end of October. The blue morning glory always blooms…just around the week of my birthday, although the rosy red and purple ones blossom from July onwards….Clear sky blue, morning glory blue, the color of truth and peace, is a good and fitting remembrance for 9/11.

I found the most useful information about the morning glory at Wikipedia:
The morning glory is a member of the Convolvulaceae family (from the Latin word convolvo, meaning to twine around, which is the way it grows). The family has many genera, and the blue morning glory is Ipomoea indica.

The sweet potato is also an Ipomoea (I. batatas) and learning that reminded me that when I was in college we used to grow sweet potato vines (cheap indoor house plants) by suspending a sweet potato half-in and out of water (by sticking toothpicks in its middle). The resulting purplish colored vine grew up and over one of our windows.

The morning glory has a funnel-shaped flower that opens at morning, from whence it gets its name. The flowers begin to curl up in a few hours and die by the afternoon. In Japan is is known as asagao (morning face).

We don’t seem to have those sky blue morning glories here in Seattle although I remember them vividly from my Southern California childhood. Instead we have what Paghat calls the Odious Bindweed (Convolvolus arvenis), which has been blooming for some months now:
I am alone of all the gardeners I know in appreciating this plant (but it hasn’t invaded my P-patch garden). I pull it up in long strings and use it to wrap around the materials in the wreaths I make, thus producing a wreath composed of entirely organic items which can be burned in a summer solstice bonfire. Because the twining quality of this plant is so strong, it has both the wiry strength one wants in such an endeavor as well as the natural spiral.

The seeds of some species (Ipomoea violacea and Rivea corymbosa) contain LSD and the seeds, if eaten in sufficient quantity (100+) will produce similar effects. They were used by Aztec priests to commune with their gods. If you are interested in using them this way, you might get some useful information from this web site:
The plant was also used by the Aztecs to coagulate rubber latex to produce bouncing balls.

There is another form of morning glory, Ipomoea aquatica, sometimes called water morning glory, which is often eaten as a vegetable in Eastern and Southeast Asian cuisines:

In the language of the flowers, the morning glory means coquetry, extinguished hopes or a busybody. The red morning glory means attachment.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Hop or Hops

The plant of the day for Fructidor 23 (Sep 9) was hop. But I chose to feature the chrysanthemum instead in honor of the Chinese Double Nine holiday on which the chrysanthemum is the featured flower. Still I didn’t want to skip hop, such an important plant for centuries. Besides it’s beautiful.

I’ve always hated beer but my attitude has shifted and I think it’s due to my Plant of the Day project. A few weeks ago my friend, Kim, was sipping a microbrew at a tavern and I caught a whiff of his beer. It smelled great and when I commented on it, he gave me a taste. It tasted great too. I could taste the herbs in it, which I’ve never tasted before in a beer. I woke up to the recognition that beer is simply another way to ingest plants, and one that really features aromatic herbs, like hop. (As far as I can tell, the plant is hop while the female flowers are hops.)

Did you know that hop is in the same family (the Cannabaceae) as Marijuana? This may be the reasons marijuana smokers were called “hopheads” but smoking hop does not produce intoxication. Humulus lupulus is the European variety and the one grown commercially. There is also a native American hop known as Humulus americanus which is found in wet canyons and streams from Nevada, Utah and Arizona eastwards.

Hop is a fibrous vine, similar to the native wild grape. It is grown commercially on 25-foot poles in hopyards. A network of wires is strung from pole to pole and more wires dangled to the ground. In early spring, the vines are trained up these wires, growing in clockwise spirals, sometimes as much as 6 to 12 inches in a single day. The biggest commercial growing regions are Bavaria, Germany and the Pacific Northwest, but up until the early twentieth century, Mrs.Grieve reports that 70% of the hop grown in England was grown at home.

Male and female flowers grow on separate plants but it’s the female flowers, which look like leafy, cone-like catkins, which are harvested in fall, usually in the third year after the plant is planted. They should be a light yellowish green color, have a full pleasant aroma and be slightly sticky. They should be dried in a cool oven immediately after harvest. Hops lose much of their flavor and medicinal value when stored so use them promptly, by making a tincture or adding it to beer. Michael Moore also uses the last whole yard of summer branches, dried and powdered to make a salve or dust on the skin as an antimicrobial.

If you’re interested in growing hop plants, here’s a website that provides some detailed information:

Hop is a beautiful plant and some varieties are grown just for decoration, like the Japanese variety, Humulus japonicus variegatus and a yellow leafed variety, Humulus lupulus aureus. The dried flower heads are also attractive. Rodales recommends adding them to wreaths and other dried arrangements.

Beer and Hop
Beer, of course, is made from fermented grains, like barley. But brewers have always added herbs to flavor beers, including marjoram, yarrow and wormwood. Around the 9th century, the Germans began adding hops because they liked the bitter flavor and it helped preserve the beer.

By the 14th century, most European beers contained hop. The English drank ale until 1500 when brewers, began adding hops, changing the sweet ale into bitter beer. Ale lovers complained and Henry VIII banned its use, but his son, Edward VI, rescinded the ban in 1552.

According to the Wikipedia article,
the point at which hops are added to the beer influences the flavor and bitterness of the beer. The later in the process the less bitterness and the more hoppy aroma.

Mrs. Grieve in her Modern Herbal (1931) provides various recipes for herbal beers:
including this one for Hop Beer:
To make a good HOP BEER, put 2 OZ. Hops in 2 quarts of water for 15 minutes. Then strain and dissolve 1 lb. of sugar in the liquor. To this add 4 quarts of cold water and 2 tablespoonsful of fresh barm [active yeast]. Allow to stand for 12 hours in a warm place and it will then be ready for bottling.

The plant has long been used, like other bitters, to stimulate the appetite and aid in digestion. It was prescribed for digestive problems and intestinal complaints by Greek and Roman physicians. The Chinese also used it as a digestive aid, and a treatment for leprosy, tuberculosis and dysentery. North American Indians used the native American hop as a sedative and sleep aid.

Castleman comments that hop farmers noticed that the plant had two effects on those who harvested it: it made them tired and it brought on women’s periods. Thus it became known as a sedative and menstruation promoter. Hop is frequently added to sleep pillows.

My daughter finds a very hoppy beer, like India Pale Ale, effective to soothe menstrual cramps. It’s far more effective for her than Midol or motherwort. This may be because hop has antispasmodic qualities. Some researchers also believe it contains chemicals similar to estrogen.

According to Castleman scientist have found two chemicals in hop (humulone and lupulone) that kill the bacteria that cause spoiling. They are also effective against tuberculosis bacteria, as recognized by the Chinese. And in 1983 a sedative chemical was discovered in the leaves--its concentration increases as the plant dries.

According to Funk & Wagnalls, in Bohemia, an oil of hops is used to fill cavities, while the Magyars mix privet and hops in wine for toothache.

The Romans used to eat the young shoots of the hop plant before they matured. They were prepared like asparagus.

Other Uses
Like hemp, the fiber in a hop plant can be used to make cloth. And the flexible vines can be used to make baskets. The leaves and flower heads can also be used to produce a brown dye.

Folklore & Myth
Paghat has a wonderful article on hop (she grows the golden variety) in which she traces the name Humulus lupulus to the maenadic cults of Cybele and Dionysus.

The species name lupulus means “little wolf,” perhaps because the plant strangles other plants as it climbs on them. It is also sometimes known as “willow wolf” since it loves to grow in the same moist soil where willows grow and will use their dangling branches for support, according to Chelsie VandaVeer’s article:
This article also features an ad for hops which shows a wonderful shaggy vine growing on a ramshackle shed.

It was customary in the hopfields of Kent for anyone visiting for the first time to contribute “foot money” lest the luck leave the fields. In Chestertown Maryland, the hope vines are said to peep out of the ground at midnight on old Christmas (Jan 6). This would be the time of the year when they have died back to the roots. [F&W]

Castleman, Michael, The Healing Herbs, Rodale 1991
Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, edited by Maria Leach, Harper and Row 1971
Moore, Michael, Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West, Red Crane Books 1993
Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs, edited by Claire Kowalchik and William H. Hylton, Rodale 1987

Saturday, September 09, 2006


My eyes, having seen all,
Came back to
The white chrysanthemums

The Chinese consider the chrysanthemum the flower of autumn. It is a member of the compositae family, which includes daisies and sunflowers. They come in many different classes based on the characteristics of the flowers including pompon, quill, spider, brush, thistle, single, incurve and spoon. For examples of these various types, see this page from the National Chrysanthemum Society:

Confucius first wrote about chrysanthemums in 500 BC and until recently they were the flowers of the noble Chinese; commoners could not grow them in gardens. They are one of China’s “Four Most Graceful Plants,” the others being ume, orchid and bamboo. The Chinese have a saying: If you would be happy for a lifetime, grow chrysanthemums. They are associated with old age and wisdom.

According to the Feng Su Chi, the people living in the Li district of China live to be 120 and 130 years old because they drink water flavored with the chrysanthemums (Leach says asters) that grow on the banks of the spring. A legend tells about Keu Tze Tung who fled to the Valley of the Chrysanthemums, after offending an emperor. When he drank the dew from the petals he became immortal. Buddhists say he was given a text to write on the petals and it was this that gave the dew its power.

The chrysanthemum arrived in Japan by way of Korea in the fourth century. In Japan, the history of the chrysanthemum (kiku) has long been intertwined with feelings of national pride and obedience. The chrysanthemum became the national flower of Japan in 910 AD. The Japanese imperial coat of arms depicts a sixteen-petaled golden chrysanthemum.

The chrysanthemum made its debut in Europe in 1688. It was Linnaeus who named it the chrysanthemum, from the Greek words for golden flower. It did not become popular until Victorian times, after the Royal Horticultural Society sent Robert Fortune to China to obtain hardy autumn-flowering chrysanthemums.

The chrysanthemum has its own holiday, Chrysanthemum Day, on the ninth day of the ninth month in the lunar calendar (which is sometimes called Chrysanthemum Month). This holiday is celebrated on September 9 in the solar calendar.

According to one legend, Fei Ch'ang-fang of the Han dynasty advised his follower to take his whole family to the hills on the 9th day of the 9th month. He advised him to make red bags for each member of the family and put a spray of dogwood inside which they would wear while they climbed, and they were to drink chrysanthemum wine at the top of the hill. They followed his instructions and when they returned home in the evening, they found all their domestic animals dead. Since then climbing the hills, wearing dogwood and drinking chrysanthemum wine became traditional activities on this day, as a way to avoid evil spirits and misfortune.

Other activities that are popular include sipping chrysanthemum wine and tea made from chrysanthemum petals, admiring the flowers in gardens and floral exhibitions, and honoring the flowers by painting them and writing poems in their honor.

A special chrysanthemum cake called Chung-Yang cake is eaten on this holiday. Because the Chinese words for cake and high sound the same, so one can eat a cake instead of going for a hike. It is a steamed cake made from flour and sugar, stuffed with chestnuts, pine nuts and other types of nut, and crowned with colorful paper flag. I couldn’t find a recipe for it online, except for a very fancy wedding cake from Martha Stewart, but there are lots of ads for chrysanthemum shaped bundt pans. Speaking of Martha, I love her chrysanthemum cupcakes:

Food and Drink
Chrysanthemum petals are edible. The Chinese make tea out of them which is said to be good for flu. Wikipedia has an article on chrysanthemum tea:

Chrysanthemum petals can also be added to cream soups and salads. Martin suggests blanching the petals before using them, but not too long or they will become bitter. Here’s a recipe for sweet potatoes with chrysanthemum petals:

The leaves of several species, including Coronation Chrysanthemums, are used as a leaf vegetable, often stir-fried with garlic and red chile peppers, according to the Wikipedia article on chrysanthemums:
You can find a recipe for chrysanthemum leaf salad (soogat moochim), here:

Chrysanthemum wine is made on the Double Nine day but must be allowed to ferment for one year before it may be drunk on the following Double Ninth Day. It is said that drinking this fragrant spirit will cure a hundred sicknesses, bring longevity, and ward off evil spirits.

Jack Keller provides a recipe for chrysanthemum wine on his wonderful wine-making web site. He notes that although the flower petals are edible, some people may have allergies to them (particularly asthma sufferers who sometimes have reactions to flowers in the compositae family) and that the sap sometimes causes dermatitis.
For an easier version, simply drop chrysanthemum petals into the bottom of a glass of your favorite wine.

To the Chinese, the chrysanthemum represents rest and ease. To the Japanese, it is a sign of long life and happiness. In the Victorian language of flowers, it means cheerfulness and optimism. Jeanne Rose assigns meanings by colors with red meaning I love, white meaning truth and other colors meaning slighted love, basing it on an American floral list, Flora’s Dictionary by Elizabeth Washington Gamble Wirt. In China, the white flowers symbolize lament. In some European countries (Belgium, Austria and Italy), the chrysanthemum is the flower of death (as the marigold is in Mexico) and is only used in funerals. In the Japanese floral calendar, the chrysanthemum is the flower of September. In the English floral calendar it is the flower of November.

Elliott, Brent, An Illustrated History of the Garden Flower, Royal Horticultural Society 2001
Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, edited by Maria Leach, Harper and Row 1971
Martin, Laura, Garden Flower Folklore, Globe Pequot Press 1987
Seaton, Beverly, The Language of the Flowers: A History, University of Virginia Press 1995
Scoble, Gretchen and Ann Field, The Meaning of Herbs, Chronicle Books 2001
VandaVeer, Chelsie, “What is the Kiku?”

Detail from a painting of a chrysanthemum indicum from One Hundred Chyrsanthemums by K Hasegawa (1891)
For more pictures see,

Friday, September 08, 2006


And in this the Lord showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand. . .In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loves it, the third is that God preserves it.
Julian of Norwich

The plant of the day for Fructidor 21 is the hazelnut (or noisette in French).

Wikipedia has a good article on hazelnuts.

Here are a few things I learned from that article:
The hazel is a shrub, in the same family as the beeches (and it bears similar catkins). The genus name is Corylus and the species is avellana from the town of Avellino in Italy. Although people often confuse them, the filbert is a slightly different species, Corylus maxima.

It’s native to Europe and Asia and was often used in England for hedgerows. The wood is coppiced (cut down to the base to encourage new growth) and the new shoots were often used as material for woven fences and wattle-and-daub building construction. In North America, where the native hazel is Corylus Americana, the twigs were used to make baskets and as drumsticks (for the Chippewa and Ojibwa).

Hazelnuts are grown commercially in Europe, Turkey, China and Australia. In the United States, hazelnut production is concentrated in Oregon, particularly in the Willamette Valley, and in my own state of Washington (to my surprise).

Hazelnuts are used to make pralines, and combined with chocolate to make Nutella. There’s a hazelnut liqueur popular in Eastern Europe and hazelnut flavoring is one of the favorite additions to lattes. Toasted hazelnuts can be added to salads, or ground up and used as breading for fish or added to vegetable dishes. For many good hazelnut recipes to to the site of the Oregon Hazelnut Industry

Or the Hazelnut Council

You could celebrate the day of the hazelnut with a hazelnut meal, starting with a hazelnut squash soup, continuing on to a hazelnut-crusted halibut recipe served with Mediterranean roasted vegetables, and finishing up with a hazelnut gelato.

The Oregon Hazelnut Industry website provides instructions on roasting hazelnuts.
To slow roast hazelnuts in an oven, “spread shelled nuts in a shallow baking pan and roast at 275 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes, until the skins crack and the meat turns light golden. Hazelnuts may also be roasted at higher temperatures. At 350 degrees, they will roast in only eight to ten minutes, but watch them closely, as they can go from toasted to scorched in a very short time at this temperature. If using a microwave, roast nuts at full power for three to four minutes. To remove the skins, pour the hot nuts in the center of a rough kitchen terry towel. Pull the towel up around the nuts and twist tightly, making a hobo pack. Let stand to steam for about five minutes. Vigorously rub the warm nuts in the towel until most of the skins are removed.”

The hazel is a tree rich in folklore. In Celtic legend, it’s the tree of knowledge. The salmon in Connla’s well ate the nuts of a hazel tree that dropped into the water and thus became the wisest of all beings. The hazel is the ninth tree in the Old Irish tree alphabet and the symbol of the ninth month (Aug-Sept). [F&W] The Dinnschenchas calls the tree the “poet’s music-haunted hazel” and also mentions “the nine hazels of Crimnall the Sage,” which “stand by the power of magic spells.” [Hageneder]

Hazel twigs are often used as divining rods and are most efficacious if cut on St John’s Eve or Night. In Berlin, it must be cut by an innocent child of true faith and it will only have power for seven years. In Brandenburg, you must approach the tree in darkness, walking backwards, and cut the fork silently, while reaching between the legs. Divining rods were used until the 17th century for discovering thieves and murderers as well as treasure and water. To test a divining rod, hold it in water and it will squeal like a pig. [F&W]

The hazel is the tree of Thor in Norwegian mythology. It’s under the domain of Mercury in Roman myth.

Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, edited by Maria Leach, Harper and Row 1971
Hageneder, Fred, The Meaning of Trees, Chronicle 2005

Illustration of hazelnut from Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany as found at:

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Sack

No plant today. It's Fructidor 20 so the French Republican calendar features a tool: the sack, to be exact. At first I wasn't too inspired by this but then I started considering all of its permutations.

The brown paper bag in which I carry home my groceries.
The green Book of the Month Club bag which carries all my essential items: calendar, wallet, pens, paint chips, bus schedules and the all important: something-to-read.
The cloth bag in which I carry my library books back and forth.
The knapSACK--I don't have one right now but I still have the one I bought at an army surplus store in England when I was a college junior and in the height of hippiness I went to England and wandered around in a long dress made out of curtains, playing tunes on my recorder to the sheep in the fields.

The Wikipedia article on sack,
mentioned several alternate meanings of the word, which are interesting, including sack, a kind of sherry, and sack as in knocking down the quarterback and sack as in fire an employee and sack as in plunder.

It’s easy enough to see the origin of this latter use—anyone sacking a village would have used a sack to carry away the goods they plundered. Perhaps the tackling the quarterback comes from the same meaning—raiding the treasure. But how does one come up with sacking an employee? Maybe because they have to pack their bags and go home? And what about hitting the sack? That’s easy if you sleep on a sack stuffed with straw. The word for sherry does not come from the same word but from the Roman word siccus, meaning dry.

The American Heritage Dictionary provides a history of the term with a special note on the way it was passed from one group of people to another through trade. The Greeks got their word sakkos, which means a bag made out of coarse cloth or hair, from thePhoenicians and although we don’t know the Phoenician word, we can see its cognates in Hebrew saq and Akkadian saqqu. The Greeks passed the word along to the Romans who called it saccus, who passed that word along, with bags one supposes, to the Germans with whom they traded. The Welsh, Russians, Polish and Albanians also picked up this word from the Romans.

The Wikipedia link to an article on bags,
reminded me of other important sacks, including the sleeping bag, the suitcase, sachets (sacks filled with herbs) and, my favorite, the tea bag.

And I suppose there are many more sacks in my life. I am going to pay special attention to them today.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Mexican Marigold

Open afresh your round of starry folds
Ye ardent marigolds

The French Republican calendar lists the flower for Fructidor 19 as tagette, the Mexican marigold, (tagetes erectus) I believe to distinguish it from that other wonderful flower which is sometimes also called a marigold, the pot marigold or calendula (calendula officinalis). Both are blooming here in Seattle, but I’m going to focus on tagetes.

The common name marigold, comes from Mary’s Gold, and is a reference to the Virgin Mary but it seems like the marigold got this name after it came to Europe, because of its similarity to the calendula in color and shape.

Popular in India, where it is raised to be used in religious rituals, it is known in Sanskrit as sthulapushpa and in Hindi as gendha. In Mexico, where it has been cultivated for 2,000 years, it is known as cempasúchil, which comes from a Nahuatl term meaning “twenty flower.” It is the flower of the Dead and used in Dia de los Muertos celebrations on November 2.

I always plant marigolds in my garden, partly because I’ve been told they’re great companion plants. I plant them around my basil which seems to be flourishing. Besides I love the way the leaves smell. I always hope they will make it through to the end of October so I can use them on my Days of the Dead altar but they rarely last that long in Seattle because a frost kills them. But they are at their prime right now. In fact they are bearing so many flowers that I have a quandary every time I go to my garden. I don’t want to cut them as they don’t last well as cut flowers but I know that cutting them will help them create more blooms. So I alternate between ignoring them, clipping off the spent blossoms and bringing them home to put in a green Chinese vase on the altar we’ve made to honor Chester the Dog.

Marigolds range in color form yellow, orange, red and mahogany and also come in stripes. I had no idea until I started researching this article of the many different varieities of marigolds. African marigolds (tagetes erectus) are sometimes called American marigolds. They can grow as tall as 36 inches and have flowers 5 inches across, although there are dwarf varities. They bloom from midsummer to frost. French marigolds (tagetes patula) are small, bushy plants with smaller flowers and they start blooming earlier in the year. They do better in rain than the African marigolds. Then there are other marigolds including:
signet marigolds (tagetes tenuifolia) that have lacy, lemon-scented foliage and edible flowers that have a spicy tarragon flavor
tangerine scented marigold (tagetes lemonii) a Southwestern variety with leaves that smell like lemon and mint
Spanish tarragon (tagetes lucida) anise-flavored with simple flowers
Irish lace (tagetes filifolia) with tiny white flowers and lacy leaves.
I learned about these varieties at this web site:

Brent Elliott says that both the so-called African and French marigolds (Tagetes erectus and patula, respectively) are South American in origin and their names simply reflect their gateways into Europe. They are members of the compositae or aster family, like sunflowers and chrysanthemums. This website,, provides a lovely breakdown of the technical features of a marigold to help you identify them:

There’s a whole web site devoted to marigolds in India which I found as a link from Wikipedia:
Marigolds were introduced into India in the 16th century and became very popular.

Now I know what to do with all my blossoms—I can freeze them in ice cubes. I can also, by boiling the flowers, then leaving them in the water overnight, produce a yellow dye which I can use to splash people on the Indian holiday of Holi or to color cloth. Most of the marigolds grown in India are strung into garlands and used to adorn religious statues and as offerings at funerals, weddings and other ceremonies. They are also used to mark sacred space, placed around temples and lining sacred fire pits.

The Wikipedia article on tagetes erecta provides information on the use of the flower in Mexico and it’s the source of the lovely photo:

Connolly in his book on Table Flowers shows a vibrant table set with an Indian theme with calendula, zinnia and marigold blossoms floating in water in shallow bowls or set on napkins. It’s a wonderful look I might try for my harvest table.

In the language of the flowers, the African marigold means vulgar minds and the French marigold jealousy while the Calendula means pain, grief, despair and cruelty.

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

Monday, September 04, 2006

Amaryllis Belladonna (Naked Lady)

Amaryllis Belladonna

Last year I wrote about birthday flowers, the idea that one might associate a particular flower with each day of the year. You can read my newsletter at this link:

My idea came from a floral calendar that I had found, which listed a flower for every day of the year, and which I later identified, thanks to the Internet as Flora’s Dial, written by J Wesley Hanson in 1853

Unfortunately my one dissatisfaction with Flora’s Dial was the flowers didn’t seem to be chosen with any attention to the season. In fact, they seemed to be written down in sporadic gusts of alliteration. As someone who’s been writing about the seasons for years, this offended me. And I thought one way to come up with a more useable calendar would be to invite my readers to submit nominations for birthday flowers, that is a flower that is blooming on your birthday. I got a few nominations, then about six months later I found the French Republican calendar with its very seasonal attributions of plants, and I am slowly working my way through those.

Today the plant of the day on the French Republican calendar is the buckthorn, which sounds interesting, but I’m going to focus on MY birthday flower, the naked lady or amaryllis belladonna, a fragrant flower that comes in pink, red and white and always blooms in Southern California around the time of my birthday. My mother received a bouquet of them after my birth and ever since the sight and scent remind her of that happy occasion. Unfortunately, they do not bloom here in Seattle. And I have not been able to find a photograph of one that is not copyrighted.

This lily is often called a naked lady, because it produces a flower before it has any leaves. The name belladonna means beautiful lady. It’s also called a March lily, I suppose, because in South Africa, which is where it comes from, it blooms in March.
This website
also mentions several other common names including: Jersey Lily in the UK., Bordão de São Jose (St. Joseph's Staff) in Portugal (it does resemble the flower sprouting from the pot next to St Joseph in this picture—however that flower is probably really a hippeastrum which blooms in spring), St Rosalina in Sicily (there is a saint Rosalia whose feast day is on September 4 so this may be a seasonal association), St Rosa or the Madonna Lily in Italy, and Meninas Para Escola in Spain (whatever that means--translation anyone?). The name amaryllis comes from the name of a shepherdess in one of Virgil’s Ecologues, the root word of her name means “sparkling,” according to the Wikipedia entry:

You have to be careful with this flower. The flower most often sold as an amaryllis, often at Christmas time, is the hippeastrum. And on one web site, I found a flower essence that claimed to be a naked lady but was really an autumn crocus.

In the language of the flowers, the Amaryllis stands for pride, a coquette and splendid beauty. I'm not sure which species is meant.

Saturday, September 02, 2006


The plant of the day for Fructidor 16 in the French Republican Calendar is the lemon.
So I am drinking a lemonade (with watermelon ice cube thanks to my experiment for Fructidor 11) as I write this.

The lemon is a citrus fruit, like limes, citrons, mandarins and oranges (Notice that most of these citrus fruits are also the names of colors.). It was probably first grown in India but reached Europe via Persia, Greece and Italy. The American Heritage Dictionary traces its name back from its first appearance in English in a customs document of 1420-1, through its journey from Old French limon from Italian limone, from Arabic laymun to its origins in India as a limun. Lemons have been identified in the ruins of Pompei. The first written description appears in an early tenth century Arabic treatise on farming.

I love reading the really clinical descriptions of these fruits, as they don’t really sound like anything I would want to eat. Would you consider eating a hesperidium, that is a specialized berry, globose to elongated, 4-30 cm long and 4-20 cm diameter, with a leathery rind surrounding segments filled with pulp vesicles? I didn’t think so, but that’s the definition of a citrus fruit provided by Wikipedia, in the article on citrus fruit,
which also describes the plants, their fragrant flowers and their favorite growing conditions: warm. Florida, California and Arizona are their favorite places to grow in the United States. One type of lemon you can grow indoors, even in a cool climate like mine, is the Meyer lemon (it’s simply hardier). Chelsie VandaVeer has an article about Frank Meyer’s discovery of the lemon named after him which he found growing in a pot outside a door in China:

The Wikipedia article provided the great picture, plus the following information:
Lemons are 5% citric acid, which gives them their sour taste, and also makes them good for science experiments like the one featured in Wikipedia: the lemon battery.
Lemons have various properties which make them useful in cooking. The acids in lemons, when squeezed on fish, neutralize the amines, converting them to nonvolatile ammonium salts. Lemon squeezed on fruits, like apples, prevents them from oxidizing (turning dark). Also when lemon juice is a marinade for meat it helps break down the tough collagen fibers in the meat.

Mrs. Grieve in her Modern Herbal (1931)
writes “It is probable that the lemon is the most valuable of all fruit for preserving health.” English ships were required to carry an ounce of lemon or lime juice for every sailor to be taken daily to prevent scurvy. Mrs. Grieve says it is good for cooling fevers. Julia Morton (see below for citation) writes that it is widely known as a diuretic, antiscorbutic, astringent, and febrifuge. In Italy, the sweetened juice is given to relieve gingivitis, stomatitis, and inflammation of the tongue.

Whenever we are sick, my daughter and I both swear by the concoction we make by boiling lemon slices along with ginger slices and jalapeno peppers. Once this liquid boils down enough to get some color, we strain out the solids and drink it like tea. According to Ayurvedic medicine, a cup of hot water with lemon juice in it purifies and tones the liver. But several writers warn against daily use (or advise you to rinse your mouth after drinking lemonade) because it strips the enamel from your teeth.

According to Mrs. Grieve: “Lemon Peel yields its virtues to alcohol, water, or wine.”
The lovely liqueur Limoncello is one way the Italians capture the virtues of lemons. Here’s a recipe for it:

This article on the lemon in Fruits in Warm Climates by Julia Morton focuses on growing lemons commercially and includes a long and interesting list of the history of various lemon cultivates, through which one could, I think, create an interesting lemon family tree (I didn’t try):
It also includes some interesting suggestions for cooking with lemons including the mention of a lemon soup, popular in Colombia, made by adding slices of lemon to a dry bread roll that has been sautéed in shortening until soft and then sieved. Add sugar and a cup of wine to this mixture and bring it to a boil. For dessert after your lemon soup, you might like some candied lemon peel. Mrs. Grieve describes how to make it by putting the peels into boiling sugar syrup, then letting them dry until the sugar crystallizes.

Lemons are also used in house cleaning. This web site offers several suggestions for using lemons (along with other non-toxic common household items) for cleaning.

It’s going to be a hot in Seattle today. A perfect day for lemonade.