Thursday, April 29, 2010

Reading is the new plant blogging

Maybe its because I'm super sick and suspect I'm really just suffering from super awful allergies, but I can't bring myself to do a plant post right now. I did go shoot a bunch of things yesterday and then had to go to bed a 8pm - coincidence? I think not.

Instead, I've been reading like a fiend. Thanks to my super sweet friend I had the afternoon to myself yesterday, to blow my nose in peace. Between naps I finished 2 books which I were so good I want to stop strangers on the street and insist that they read them. Immediately. But since we don't do that here in the genteel South, you get to hear about them instead.

First, I Am An Emotional Creature by Eve Ensler, of Vagina Monologues fame. What I wouldn't do to be able to go back and give this book to my 14 year old self! I can't wait to give it to Caitlin, although I am grateful that homeschooling and our vagabond life has preserved her childhood innocence a bit longer than most American girls. Ensler, as ever, has captured the potential, the pain, and the incredible beauty of female existence and presents it in gripping narrative, haunting poetry, and fierce war-cries. I'm buying a copy now, for me, and another, to save, for the right moment, for Caitlin.

Second, Boys Without Names by Kashmira Sheth. Chris was fortuitous enough to meet Kashmira years ago when she and her daughter engaged him to tutor them in Sanskrit. Kashmira had three books out then, and was gracious enough to visit our homeschool book group to talk with the kids about her works and career. All of her novels address the experiences of Indian children, albeit in very different circumstances. (She has also published 2 picture books, My Dadima Wears a Sari and Monsoon Afternoon, which beautifully portray the very special relationship between grandparents and grandchildren.) Boys Without Names introduces us to Gopal, a boy from Maharashtra (the second state we lived in in India) who is kidnapped and forced into slavery in a factory in Mumbai. Now before you skip ahead in disgust, let me assure you that Kashmira has a rare gift and is able to portray ugly realities in a way that is safe and appropriate for young readers. Her other books have dealt with the immigrant experience, arranged marriage, and child widows. Each is as accessible, absorbing, and gentle as you could hope, and offers a chance to learn about and develop compassion for children whom on the surface may seem very different, but who are in reality, just like the children reading the books. She is not only broadening horizons, she is opening hearts, and I am grateful to have such books to put into my children's hands.

Though not finished in the last 24 hours, I also want to mention A Young People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn, with Rebecca Stefoff. Caitlin has asked for it for a birthday gift (yay, homeschooling!) and I'm looking forward to reading it (and re-reading A People's History of the United States) along with her this summer. Zinn describes the book best himself:

My history... describes the inspiring struggle of those who have fought slavery and racism (Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Fannie Lou Hamer, Bob Moses), of the labor organizers who have led strikes for the rights of working people (Big Bill Haywood, Mother Jones, César Chávez), of the socialists and others who have protested war and militarism (Eugene V. Debs, Helen Keller, the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, Cindy Sheehan). My hero is not Theodore Roosevelt, who loved war and congratulated a general after a massacre of Filipino villagers at the turn of the century, but Mark Twain who denounced the massacre and satirized imperialism.

I want young people to understand that ours is a beautiful country, but it has been taken over by men who have no respect for human rights or constitutional liberties. Our people are basically decent and caring, and our highest ideals are expressed in the Declaration of Independence, which says that all of us have an equal right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The history of our country, I point out in my book, is a striving, against corporate robber barons and war makers, to make those ideals a reality — and all of us, of whatever age, can find immense satisfaction in becoming part of that.*

Last, I want to mention two novels that I have recently loved. Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko and Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich. There are the obvious similarities - both written by Native American women, both unrelentingly dark and both pulsing with the aftermath of the European theft of the Americas, but the differences are worth noting as well. Almanac is truly an epic, while Shadow Tag is gaunt and sparse. Where Almanac is fantastical, Shadow Tag is grittily, brutally real. As the reviews surely point out, neither book is for everyone, but for me, they are two of the best I've read lately, and perhaps in the case of Almanac, ever. (Bear in mind though that I love Wolfe and Bukowski and Garcia Marquez and Fuentes, and that magical realism will never ever be a dirty word in my house...)

*Roll your mouse over the Zinn quote and you'll discover all of the people he mentions, plus the Declaration of Independence and the Filipino massacre are all linked to the appropriate Wikipedia article - just in case you want to brush up on your history right here and now!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Rhododendron Tsutsuji*

*There are something like 10,000 named varieties of azalea, and it is far beyond my capabilities to figure out which we have. However, azaleas are divided into two sub-genera - deciduous and evergreen. As far as I can remember, mine are all evergreen, hence the "Tsutsuji"

At long last, azaleas! The drive-in, Charlottesville, and a Chuck E. Cheese birthday party were all a bit much and I needed to lay low and recuperate these past few days... Also found out I have to get my wisdom teeth out. So not so much with the plant posts.

At least a month ago, in hot pursuit of admittance to the UW, I was talking to a woman in a now-forgotten administrative office who asked me if the azaleas were blooming when she heard I was in Virginia. At the time they weren't and I couldn't fathom why she'd be asking. Like so many other plants here, I'd never knowingly seen an azalea before. (It occurs to me that I may have had a rather sheltered horticultural youth... that, or perhaps my strengths lie in other areas?) Anyhow, the azaleas are now very much in bloom and I can understand why she asked. The sight of huge hedges in brilliant color is not one I'll soon forget.

We have maybe 4 big azalea bushes out front - a bit hard to tell since they all grow together. And then another big bank of them in the back, just below Chris's office windows. Various shades of pink, plus red and a lovely light purple too. The red ones bloomed first, then the pink out back and just in the past few days, the purple guy. Such loveliness - I'm afraid my photos are not equal to the task...

I learned that in Korea folks make a liquor from azalea blossoms - something called Dugyeonju. (Tugyongu? Seems to be some disagreement about how to transliterate Korean into English... welcome to my world.) The liquor is moderately potent, but one has to be careful to use only the petals as the other reproductive structures are toxic. Especially to horses. Best of all, dugyeonju has been designated "Important Intangible Cultural Property 86-2". (I feel a Korea-theme bubbling. Did you know there are Korean wines made from all sorts of flowers? Acacia flower wine, anyone?) I think I'd like to live in a country that had Important Intangible Cultural Property. Wouldn't you?

Friday, April 23, 2010

"an ambivalent art"

Tonight I don't feel like plants or photography or plant photography. I feel like a poem.

Poems, even. At least, sort of.

But lest I stray to far from my self-imposed blog structure, I googled 'azalea poem' and found something so lovely, I had to share. This is by the Korean poet Kim So-Wol.


When seeing me sickens you
and you walk out
I'll send you off without a word, no fuss.

Yongbyon's mount Yaksan's
by the armful I'll scatter in your path.

With parting steps
on those strewn flowers
treading lightly, go on, leave.

When seeing me sickens you
and you walk out
why, I'd rather die than weep one tear.

Now, even better is the page where I found the poem. Please go have a look. You'll find an article first published in Modern Poetry in Translation. If you're not one of my many word-wonk readers, just scroll down to the various translations, read and compare. But if language or literature is at all your thing, the article will be five minutes well spent.

Tomorrow, if Charlottesville and the drive-in (first ever!) don't do me in, I'll have real live azaleas for you, and not one of them strewn beneath the feet of a departing, disgusted lover. (They're so much lovelier that way...)

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Phlox stolonifera/subulata

Today, another plant I had never (knowingly?) met until coming to The South. Lexington is just brimming with phlox, especially the older, stately homes in town. I think we have both Creeping Phlox (P. stolonifer) and Moss Phlox (P. subulata).

These white guys live around the corner from my house and are my nominee for Creeping Phlox.

And these pinky-purple guys adorn my pond - Moss Phlox, I think. (It really is a challenge to identify particular species of plants, or worse, cultivars, using only photos and Google. Anyone have a good plant ID scheme to share?)

There are roughly 60 species of phlox, and all but one are native to North America. The oddball is native to Siberia, of all places.

And speaking of oddballs, there is a Star Trek character named Dr. Phlox. He is (was?) Chief Medical Officer of the Enterprise, and is Denobulan. He has 3 wives, 5 children, and like all Denobulans, only needs 6 days of sleep each year. By the looks of him the good Dr. Phlox seems like a right jolly fellow too, even if he isn't getting enough sleep.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Prunus sargentii

From across the street, a cherry tree.

Being as common as it is, I won't bore you with too many pedestrian facts about the cherry. You know they came originally from East Asia, and are particularly revered in Japan. You also know about the famous cherry trees in Washington DC.

But did you know cherry blossoms and leaves are edible? They are. They most commonly appear in Japanese sweets, but are also sometimes crafted into a sort of tea that is imbibed on special occasions.

And did you know the blossoms are associated with the Japanese concept of "Mono no aware"? It means literally, "the pathos of all things", but can also be understood as an empathy toward all things, or more specifically, a sensitivity toward the ephemeral nature of all things. The phrase was coined by Motoori Norinaga, a Japanese scholar and cultural critic of the 18th century.

(Funny how a desire to learn the names of the plants I see everyday has led me so far afield... lovely, though. Let's hear it for autodidact-ism!)

Sunday, April 18, 2010

coming soon...

Wisteria sinensis

Growing up in the midwest was a wonderful thing, but I realize now that it was not without its drawbacks. 34 years without ever meeting a wisteria, for instance.

See what I mean? I'm completely bowled over by these guys.

And I'm not the only one. A friend here naively planted two wisteria vines alongside her garden trellis a few years ago. Now she has a big wisteria heap, and no trellis. The wisteria crushed it. Wisteria have been known to pull down fences and posts, pry up shingles, collapse roofs, and even lift a house off its foundations.

The house above is on the market - wonder why?

Folks around the corner have chosen a safer path and planted their wisteria far away from everything, in the middle of their gargantuan yard. Pretty, huh?

But these guys must be gamblers...

The wisteria is related to the pea, although its seeds resemble beans. It is said to have been brought to Europe from Asia by none other than Marco Polo. The wisteria figures prominently in traditional Japanese kabuki dance. The world's largest flowering plant is a 250-ton, 500-ft wisteria vine in Sierra Madre, CA. Just like the wisteria in my neighborhood, the record holder is said to flower most vigorously when a cold winter is followed by an unusually warm spring.

Hoo boy!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Syringa vulgaris

Today, the common lilac. We are fortunate enough to have a number of large, exuberant lilac bushes which form a leafy, fragrant hedge along the south side of our yard, save for a reasonably sized gap, just right for calling through to the neighbors. (Especially handy if you have some extra Fragaria ananassa** to unload.) (Or the desire to write windy run-on sentences.) (Lucky you!)

They smell divine. (The lilacs, not the neighbors. Or the Fragaria ananassa for that matter.) Especially in the morning. Especially in the morning when one has a few moments to sit quietly, drink coffee and read, alone. In the warm sunshine. I proudly take my place among the countless other Virginians who have delighted in their lilacs; the first were introduced in my fair state in the early 1700s, and perfected here by John Custis, in Williamsburg, of course.

In researching the good old lilac I discovered nothing all that intriguing, but did happen upon Phillip Miller. Miller was a Scottish botanist who lived from 1691 to 1771. He was the head gardener of the Chelsea Physic Garden in London, the second oldest botanical garden in England. He seems to have been a bit of an obdurate old chap and rejected Linnaeus' new-fangled nomenclature for most of his life. In the end he did embrace the new binomial system, but Miller's nomenclature lives on, as evidenced by the many plants that bear his authorial citation. (There appears to be a rather complex world of plant-naming which I realize may not fascinate my readers as much as it does me. Please do dive into the above links if you so desire... though be warned, a love of Latin may be required.)

I'll leave you with a po-em, by Emily Dickinson

The Lilac is an ancient shrub
But ancienter than that
The Firmamental Lilac
Upon the Hill tonight --
The Sun subsiding on his Course
Bequeaths this final Plant
To Contemplation -- not to Touch --
The Flower of Occident.
Of one Corolla is the West --
The Calyx is the Earth --
The Capsules burnished Seeds the Stars
The Scientist of Faith
His research has but just begun --
Above his synthesis
The Flora unimpeachable
To Time's Analysis --
"Eye hath not seen" may possibly
Be current with the Blind
But let not Revelation
By theses be detained --

**QUIZ! Who knows what Fragaria ananassa is? No fair googling it... Post your guesses and you could win.... um, nothing! But we'll think you're cool, at least.**

Friday, April 16, 2010

Oxalis stricta (?)

From my own back yard, one of the over 1000 species of Oxalis, commonly known as wood sorrel. It has set up shop beneath our gargantuan rose bushes, along side the garage. I would've written it off as a weird looking clover and ripped it out had Colleen not clued me in to its deliciousness.

(As with the dogwood, I won't be able to tell exactly which species I have until it moves along a bit, producing something besides leaves.)

Oxalis gets the name wood sorrel from the fact that it tastes a bit like true sorrel - nice and sour/tangy. A bit much to nibble straight, but lovely in a salad I'd bet. Oxalis comes from the presence of oxalic acid, which provides the distinctive taste.

Oxalis species can be found everywhere in the world outside of the polar regions. There is even one that in endemic to the deserts of Namibia.

And I thought it was just a weed!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Sassafras albidum

I met my first sassafras plant today, a bit far a field, but still worth including in my catalog of intriguing local flora.

Our friends live on nearly 100 acres between here and West Virginia, and one of the kids was enterprising enough to identify and uproot a young sassafras plant.
I had of course heard of sassafras before and knew it had some relationship to root beer, but that first whiff of the roots was wild! Like sticking your nose in an A&W factory or something. Dee-lish-us.

I'd also heard of sassafras tea and there was much discussion of whether the girls would brew some up. Enthusiasm and maternal endorsement of the project waned fairly quickly, much to my dismay. But there were peas to weed, fruit trees to cage, chickweed plants to pop, and soon enough, hungry hordes to feed.

Turns out that sassafras roots and bark are the primary source of safrole, a weak carcinogen. Safrole is banned by the FDA for use in food, and root beer is now flavored artificially. The International Fragrance Association has also banned the use of safrole in soaps and perfumes.

Now, lest you begin to worry over-much, safrole also is found in things you have in your kitchen like cinnamon and basil and black pepper, and its consumption is believed to raise a person's overall risk of developing cancer as much as consuming tomatoes or orange juice does. (Which is to say, so little as to be not worth worrying about at all.) Also bear in mind that a study done in 1977 cast doubt on whether safrole is carcinogenic to humans (earlier studies were done on rats and the ban was enacted as a result of those rat studies).

Safrole may also be used in the manufacture of MDMA.

Should we start a movement to legalize safrole? I bet honest root beer is far better than the chemically flavored stuff we're drinking now...

Totally unrelated, but just as awesome as sniffing sassafras roots: Super groovy podcast to tap your toes to (Ne'ke, I'm looking at you!).... I went to high school with this guy - thanks FB.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Cornus florida

We have two white dogwoods in the front, two more in back, and I think another somewhere along the edges somewhere.... I should know that, shouldn't I? It was a cold gray day here - not one that encouraged me to spend lots of time in the yard gazing on trees.

There are many sub-genuses (geni?) of dogwood and I won't know for sure which we have until they produce berries. Dogwoods usually have white flowers, but also occasionally pink, as can be found in my neighbor's yard.

Dogwood trivia: Those beautiful white (or pink) "flowers" are actually not flowers at all, but bracts. Bracts are specialized leaves associated with a plant's reproductive structure. The dogwood's flowers are tiny yellowish green guys - you can see them still tightly closed in the top picture.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Azaleas, Dogwoods and Lilacs, Oh My!

A (huge, momentous, life-changing) chapter is coming to a close here at Chez SLNC, and somehow in light of that, I decided to start up a new blog project. They're completely unrelated, but I like symmetry and confluence and whatnot, and in its own weird way, this makes sense to me. (And its my blog, so I get to draw what ever connections I want!)

So, allow me to present Azaleas, Dogwoods and Lilacs, Oh My! a series of posts about all of the lovely, unusual and tasty plants in my little corner of the world. I'll post a picture of a new plant everyday, along with some basic info and hopefully some little know facts, if I can find them. Not sure how long this will go on, but there are at least 2 weeks worth of blog-able plants in my yard alone, so we'll have a good run I think.

I have to credit two people for helping to get me thinking about local flora: First, my dear friend Colleen who walked all around my yard with me today, telling me the names of everything and who then proceeded to sit down and weed my soon-to-be strawberry beds for me. And then a woman in the L&S Dean's office at the UW, who's name I don't know, but who, upon hearing I was in south-western VA immediately asked me if the azaleas and dogwoods were blooming yet.

Stay tuned, we'll start with the Virginia State Tree tomorrow!