Saturday, September 22, 2007

Crabgrass in my Garden

I love volunteers in the garden, those mystery plants that sprig up and only gradually reveal their character. I’ve got a magnificent mullein that was a volunteer—it always makes visitors gasp—and it’s now the matriarch of a thriving colony of mulleins, most of which I will root out (mainly because they take up so much room).

The woman who gardened in my plot before me planted a plant with red-trumpet-like flowers to attract humming birds. It is more invasive than mint or bamboo. It can't be killed, it sneaks around barriers of metal, and no matter how many times I ruthlessly rip it out, I never win the battle. We are in a struggle.

The newest volunteer in my garden is also in this unwelcome category. In the spring, I noticed a grass that was poking through the branches of my big lavender plant. It gradually spread through my garden in waves, slyly insinuating itself all through the herb and iris bed, then creeping around the back and entering the bed with the dog roses, strawberries, arugula and basil (it hasn’t reached the back bed yet whichis where I am doing battle with the red trumpet flower plant). This plant spreads underground, the white roots creeping through the earth before poking up green shoots in some new location. When I try to rip it up, I sometimes yank out the root, back to its last outpost, but I never seem to be able to track it back to its source. Trying to disentangle it from my small lavender bush, I had to dig up the plant, so inexorably were their roots entwined, and, as a result, the lavender died.

The mystery volunteer is a grass so I finally decided to make it the latest subject in my grass identification project. I plucked a fine mature specimen: tall stem, gay green ribbons of leaves and a seedhead with four horizontal grainy blades like a little heliocopter. Can you guess what it was?

Yes, crabgrass. Unremarkable, insidious, unloved, unquenchable crabgrass. When I googled crabgrass to learn about its name, the suggested combinations were “crabgrass control,” “crabgrass removal,” “crabgrass prevention,” “crabgrass herbicide,” “crabgrass treatment,” “crabgrass prevention,” and “crabgrass kill.” It seems no one wants it around.

My new favorite Northwest plant identification guide (known affectionately as Pojar’s) says that it is digitaria sanguinalis (an interesting name suggesting it has something to do with fingers and blood but I haven’t found an explanation for this name). The explanation for its common name, crabgrass, is that it creeps sideways like a crab, or the nodes look like crabs. The little whirligig at the top of the plant is the inflorescence—it flowers from August to September in our area.

The Plants for the Future website says that the seeds can be ground up into flour and the leaves used to make paper. So nice to know there is a positive use for this plant. I was curious to know how to make paper from grass so I did a little snooping around the internet. Apparently it can be quite a difficult process, involving caustic chemicals. The instructions from Akua at the Art Farm, seemed the simplest.

Pojar, Jim and Andy MacKinnon, Revised Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, B C Ministry of Fores and Lone Pine Publishing, 2004

Monday, September 10, 2007

Scanned Flower Art?

I thought I was done with the topic of flower art--see below for posts on flower dogs and flower carpets—when I found an article at Human Flower Project about scanning flowers.

Truly amazing pieces of work, although skeptics ask: Is it Art? Is flower arranging art? Are photographs of flowers art? What about X-ray photographs of art?

Several years ago I saw an amazing show of x-ray photographs of flowers at a local jewelry store. Truly art. Unfortunately I can't prove it because I can't find the artist. Whiel searching for her, I did find x-ray photographs of flowers from Hong Pham, Judith McMillan, and Steven N Meyers.
Some of these I think qualify as art--there is artistry involved in the design. Others strike me as simply unique and intimate ways of looking at flowers more closely.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Birthday Flowers

I've been championing the idea of a birthday flower, that is a flower that blossoms on your birthday. And here's the most recent picture of mine: the naked lady or autumn crocus.

These grow in the parkway a few blocks from my house. I love how they mysteriously appear and just as mysteriously disappear. I wanted to pick one but I know they are poisonous so I didn't (although I think maybe only the bulb is poisonous).

Linnaeus named the autumn crocus, colchicum, after Colchis, the island on which the poisoner and sorceress Medea lived. It has even more wonderful common names. I know it as a naked lady. It's a naked maiden in Germany (because it has no leaves, just a bare flower stalk). In France, they are called dog-killers and bare-bottoms. In England, Wilfrid Blunt (who gives this delightful list) mentions the names: upstarts, daggers, kite’s legs, naked boys and naked nannies. While the Arabs call them, he says, the lamps of the ghoul. That's my favorite. Do they look like the lamps of the ghoul? Maybe a little.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Foxtail Barley

I’m making progress on my grass identification project now that I’ve got a copy of Pojar’s Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast. For instance, this grass that grows in the parkways all over my neighborhood. I think of it as foxtail. And according to Pojar’s, it’s common name is foxtail barley. The Latin name is hordeum jubatum.

Pojar's says it grows along roadsides which explains why I find it in the parkway. Once I brought my specimen inside, the little spikelets starting breaking off. They look like little satellites with their long tails (those are called awns) and their sharp points. Each bristle has barbs that point backwards and these can become lodged and work their way into the nose, mouth, ears, eyes or even intestines of animals that eat them. So right now I’m going to scoop them all up and throw them in the trash, before Pepe, the Chihuahua, finds them.

According to Plants for a Future, it is possible to make flour out of them by grinding up the seeds. The roasted seeds can also be used to make a substitute for coffee. But it’s hardly worth the effort.

On the other hand, when I went looking for references on the Internet to foxtail barley, I found a related plant in the University of Washington herbarium: hordeum pusillum. Now I’m not really sure what I found. Since they are related, perhaps it doesn’t matter.

Wikipedia’s article on barley mentions that barley was a staple cereal in ancient Egypt where it was used to make both bread and beer. The English word beer comes from barley. It is appropriate that I am featuring it in the month of September, for the initiates at the Eleusinian Mysteries, held in honor of Demeter (known as Barley-mother) during the full moon of September, drank a ritual drink (kykeon) made of barley and herbs.

Barley-water (made by steeping pearl barley in hot water) is a popular drink in England where it is often the first food offered to babies. The Victorian Martha Stewart, Mrs. Beeton, includes a recipe for her barley-water in her section on cooking for invalids. Pearl barley is washed in cold water, then boiled in 2 quarts of boiling water. Once the liquid is reduced to half, the barley is strained out. It can be flavored with lemon peel, either afterwards or while boiling.

Beeton, Isabella, Beeton's Book of Household Management, first published London 1861, facsimile Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1977
Poajr, Jim & Andy MacKinnon, Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, Lone Pine Publishing 1994

Saturday, September 01, 2007

A Hairy Bentgrass?

I wrote in my newsletter about how I wanted to learn to identify grasses--I always like to collect a bouquet of all the wild grasses growing on my block on Assumption (August 15) in honor of Our Lady of the Grain. I went out and found a magnificent speciment in the vacant lot across the street--almost three feet high with some fine seed heads at the top--but then couldn't identify it.

The websites I found through a Google search were not helpful. They wanted details I couldn't provide. To my surprise (and dismay), we don't seem to have a single ruler in the house that measures centimeters. Also I can't see the fine detail of the grass--I don't have a hands len--though I am using the magnifying glass that came with my Oxford English Dicitonary.

Luckily one of my readers recommended Pojar's Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast. It's amazing. The grass section begins with picture keys which break down the Grass family (Poaeceae) into Tribes: the Barley Tribe, the Millet tribe, etc. To distinguish between the 200 varieties of grasses that grow in my region, it helps to learn technical terms like panicle and glume and lemma. Grasses have their own vocabulary, quite distinct from flowers.

At first I thought my wild grass was a fescue but now I'm leaning towards Bentgrass, possibly Hair Bentgrass (Agrostis scabra). According to Pojar's, the name scabra means rough or scrufy, and refers to the way the grass feels. That's my main clue. When you run your fingertips along the stem and even the panicle branches of my specimen, it feels like sandpaper. I feel no certainty about this identification so if you have a better idea let me know.

Pojar, Jim and Andy MacKinnon, Revised Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, Lone Pine Publishing 2004

Autumn Crocus Revisited

Here they are two days later.

I'll check again on my birthday.