The cherry tree has always had a powerful grasp on the hearts and minds of the Japanese. Come March, an entire nation turns their ears to hear the cherry blossom forecast- whole crowds wait, eager to gather and picnic under pink and white blossom clouds. In Japanese culture, the tree represents lavish beauty, and transience, and the inevitability of death. Kamikaze bombers adopted the flowers as their symbol, painting them on their planes, and some even believed they would be reincarnated as next season’s blossoms.
Some of the USA’s greatest cherry displays come direct from the land of cherry blossom. Washington D.C obtained it’s first donation of more than 3,000 trees as a gift from the City of Tokyo in 1912. The Brooklyn Botanic garden’s 220 Japanese cherries are the centerpiece for the garden’s ‘Hanami’ celebrations, where visitors can revel in the scents and sights of spring.
And what better way to celebrate spring than with a flower whose lifespan is as short as the season itself?
We hear so much about what love feels like.
Right now, today, with the rain outside,
And leaves that want as much as I do to believe
In May, in seasons that come when called,
It’s impossible not to want
To walk into the next room and let you
Run your hands down the sides of my legs,
Knowing perfectly well what they know.
From the poem “I Don’t Miss It” by Tracy K. Smith
Carrion flower does it. Corpse flower does it too. So guess which of our USA natives is gifted with the talent for thermogenesis (producing it’s own heat)?
Are we noticing a theme yet? First of all, it bears mentioning that these three plants are all in the same family: the Araceae. Second of all, these plants all use strong scents to attract pollinating flies to their flowers- why? Because heat aids in dispersing these scents to further flung locales, and getting more pollinators in to do their duty, more quickly.
Skunk cabbage’s heat-producing capabilities serve a second purpose, too. Ever notice it is always the first plant up, come spring? Forget daffodils or snowdrops. Increasing air temperatures directly around the plant by as much as 50 degrees F, skunk cabbage is able to melt snow, and get a serious jump on the season. Thermogenesis is such a production, it requires the plant to use a whole different kind of metabolism than it usually does. In terms of energy use, the plant kinda starts acting like a hummingbird, or fleet-footed rodent. It’s weird.
So next time you’re out enjoying that first sliver of springtime green thanks to skunk cabbage (or maybe cursing it because it smells so nasty), stick your finger inside it’s flowers- feel the difference!
Growing up, I was a picky eater which means I remember when I had my first strawberry. It was late Spring in Southern New Hampshire. My friend’s mom had just picked dozens and as everyone took their first bites (of the season), I sat and watched. I was one of those children who feared fruit and vegetables, thinking salads consisted of croutons, shredded cheese and ranch dressing. Taste like that didn’t get me far and it was only a matter of time before my opt-outs became full subscriptions.
As a late adopter of many foods, I have the pleasure of recalling those precious moments of first taste. Sinking my teeth into the ripe strawberry, the flavor burst in my mouth. Overcome by a voluptuous sweetness as I discarded the stem, I went back for more. I learned, then and there, the luxurious bounty of berries, the utter delight of juice-stained fingertips. I’ve been going back for more ever since.
As May descends upon us, so does the promise of strawberry picking. In anticipation of too many cartons to know what to do with, I’ve complied a list of recipes that call for the fresh ingredient:
Strawberry Panzanella – This summer salad reminds me of one of my favorite breakfast treats, strawberry jam on toast.
The River Café’s Strawberry Sorbet – A frozen, icy scoop to be eaten outside in the sunshine. Then call it a day.
Strawberry Thyme Jam – A simple guide to jamming, this recipe offers an alternative to the water bath canner and keeps for up to 3 – 4 weeks in the fridge.
Strawberry Cake with Strawberry Cream Cheese Frosting – Okay, I cheated because this ruby deep cake doesn’t call for actual strawberries but it does call for strawberry jam, strawberry extract and red food coloring. It’s a strawberry reincarnated as a cake.
Bees start stirring somewhere around April, but to tell you the truth, they’re never completely idle. In the wild, the big momma queen bee of the burrowing bee species begins to lay eggs in January far below the frost line. If you’ve got a hive, your honey bees will start expanding their brood more slowly and a little later, in February. Every time there’s a warm snap, and they come more and more frequently as we close in on May, bees take flight to stretch their wings and scout for early flowers. Boost your garden’s productivity and biodiversity and bring bees- of all different species- to the garden this year:
Squash bees: Squash bees, unlike the honey bee, are as American as apple pie (I mean, technically speaking they’re more American because apples are Eurasian…). They’re cute cuddly, and black and yellow striped just like honey bees- but many greenthumbs consider them better pollinators of crops in the pumpkin family. Got gourds? You’ve probably got these pollinators already. Just to make sure, plant any of the Cucurbits like cucumbers or zucchini!
Shaggy fuzz foot bees: YEAH. I’m serious. This is the bee’s real name. PRETTY AWESOME, no? Shaggy fuzz foot is another native bee species that, like the squash bee, specializes in collecting pollen from a narrow subsect of native plants. In this case, it’s the blueberry family. Equipped with a long tongue- long enough to plunge down the throat of the elongate, tubular flowers of most blueberries and reach nectar, this bee does the work that other bee species can’t. Next time you check out your blueberries, see whether you’ve been visited by the magical shaggy fuzz foot, or whether another kind of bee species has ‘stolen’ nectar by piercing the flower at it’s base, rather than doing the polite thing and helping out with pollination duties before making off with the goods. To attract the fuzz foot, there is nothing better than planting blueberries, but they also like apple and cherry flowers, too.
Other tips: In general, the more floral diversity, the better. Bees are attracted to all kinds of flowers. The daisy family Asteraceae is a failsafe with many different kinds of garden varieties to choose from like black eyed susan, cone flower, and aster. The mint family is another favorite with nutritious nettles, pennyroyal, and the aptly named bee balm all on the roster of ’best bee plants’ .
Ever since reading this article about the transformational power of spices, I’ve been on a hunt for a new mortar and pestle (mine currently holds loose change). My search quickly led me to the ceramic wares of product designer, Chifen Cheng. Cheng’s small design studio, Designlump, offers ergonomic kitchen products such as cups, plates and, of course, the mortar and pestle (which includes a thumb dent on the pestle for ease while grinding). With a background in industrial design, Cheng is an artisan who values both utility and charm when handcrafting her tools. She told Food & Wine: “Once you touch clay, it’s hard to stop.” I’ll take her cue. Off to grind some spices!
The good news is, wildflowers do not startle. No matter how long it takes to make a positive ID or take an up-close photo, they are happy to pose. The no-so-good news is, depending on the plant, their display may last only weeks or days in any given place.
To make the most of your trip, you’ll want to grab a guidebook, make a plan, and bring your lucky rabbits foot. Like anything else, wildflower hunting is all about being in the right place at the right time. But with a little preparation, nature will reward you with an abundance of memorable colors, shapes, textures, and experiences:
1. Study the likely suspects. Depending on where you go, only two or three early bloomers will be hardy or conspicuous enough to show. Look them up ahead of time in a book or encyclopedia that includes info on season and ecology. Then remember to pack a field guide (I love my Pojar) to cover the mysterious strangers and colorful party crashers you meet along the way.
2. Follow the rain. Sunny days are fine for hiking, but sunny days after a downpour are even better. Especially true in the southwest, where some opportunistic buds respond within hours, not days, and evaporate as briskly.
3. Go for southern exposure. Just like in your garden, southern facing slopes dry out and green up earlier than others. Select a trail that will, on a macro-level, spend most of its time on the bright side of your hill/valley/river/canyon/gorge.
4. Stay on the trail. Good sense on any hike and especially meaningful in wildflower country. Nonwoody plants crush easily underfoot; compacted soil will snuff them out. Unbeknownst to you, the seeds of non-native plants may have hitched a ride on the soles of your boot. And it almost goes without saying: don’t pick. A severed stem does nothing for their winsome looks.
5. And speaking of looks… keep yours low. Both in terms of altitude (the lowlands and valleys spring up before mountainsides) and undergrowth. Many early bloomers are short, lithe, unassuming creatures who nab their place in the sun before taller, fuller varieties fill in the wildflower canopy. But small doesn’t mean less interesting. Take shooting star, or Dodecatheon – a dainty display with captivating geometry.
6. Don’t overlook the wayside. I know when I hear wildflowers, my mind immediately goes to alpine meadows in full effect. However the blossoms are many along country roads and in empty suburban lots, often dwarfing by sheer number their cousins in the high country.
Last but not least, do you have any tips for me? As a new writer here at Wilder, I’d love to hear your thoughts on native plants, hiking, camping, and everything outdoors. Leave a comment or send a lovely note to summer [at] wilderquarterly [dot] com. Happy hunting!
I recently recommended using a hand hoe to clear weeds. Another great way to get rid of weeds? Eat them.
One of the most insidious and (thankfully!) tastiest weeds is Lamb’s Quarters. Also known as goosefoot – a reference to the shape of the leaves (Cheno meaning goose and podia meaning foot).
Lamb’s Quarters are in the family Chenopodiaceae, which also includes the more familiar spinach, quinoa and chia seed. Lamb’s Quarters are a staple in Mexico. There, You would encounter them under the name Huauzontle. Traditional Mexican recipes using Huauzontle can be found in the venerable Diana Kennedy’s “From My Mexican Kitchen”.
When young, Lamb’s Quarters are very tender and you will notice a powdery white film on the surface of the leaves. As the plant grows (it can get to be as tall as 6 ft high) the thick stem will take on a magenta colored striping. Either way, it is a delicious, green addition to your plate. Lamb’s Quarters are rich in calcium, fiber and iron. They are also a good source of B-complex vitamins and vitamin C. Use them anywhere you would normally use spinach. Just think of it as “wild spinach.”
Spring farming is rough. Early mornings are still chilly enough for knit caps and afternoons feel like mid July. Row cover blows everywhere and your plants are still tiny. Greens and mustards have not yet matured enough to harvest – even for a modest salad. Spring farming demands patience. I find that eating tasty weeds is one of the most gratifying ways to endure this season. I rely on Lamb’s Quarters (and purslane and chickweed…) to satisfy my very impatient craving for garden food. Eat what you weed!
It’s edible garden weekend at San Francisco’s Flora Grubb Gardens. If you’re an SF resident (like me) you won’t want to miss Saturday and Sunday’s workshops featuring Christopher Shein on Edible Ecosystems and Clarke de Mornay on Vegetables in the City.
This is a great time to start thinking about cultivating a sustainable food supply in your very own backyard. Whether you’re a green thumb or an aspiring one, don’t let that pesky fog belt discourage you! Both Shein and de Mornay know the ups and downs of permaculture in the Bay Area. Perma-what?
According to the Permaculture Institute, “permaculture is an ecological design system for sustainability in all aspects of human endeavor. It teaches us how build natural homes, grow our own food, restore diminished landscapes and ecosystems, catch rainwater, build communities and much more.” Eager to know more? Well, it’s time to learn because wouldn’t it be great to have your backyard be the farm in the farm to table dynamic? I think so. See you in the garden!
Lady Gaga wore meat. Bjork wore a swan. According to these photographs, the latest growing trend is plant wear. This collaborative shoot sprouted from the creative minds of floral design studio Supernatural, photographer Alix-Rose Cowie, stylist Kate Desmarais, and model Shelly Chen.