Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Columbus Day Walk

Origins and Consequences Walk
Prospect Park
14 October, 11am - 1.30pm

Once upon a time Columbus discovered America.  Or did he? Oh, dear...

It was here all the time, of course.

Filled with indigenous peoples and plants. In the wake of European settlement unfamiliar plants appeared, and began to alter the botanical landscape.

Use this federal holiday celebrating Columbus (and was he Italian or Portuguese, anyway?) to come and meet and celebrate the delicious native plants of the Northeast, learn some of the traditional ways of using them, and discover the exotic and useful plants that have naturalized here. Our wild-inspired picnic will feature native American ingredients (think fermented, dried serviceberries), as well as Portuguese treats (pastéis de nata, anyone?), reinterpreted with native and invasive ingredients.

Please bring your opinions. There may even be a food fight.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

The tropical terrace

I was away in Cape Town - working remotely and keeping my mom company - for the month of September. Despite my absence, the plants on the terrace just kept growing, watered almost daily by the Frenchman. Despite its tiny size, relative to the garden I just left, returning to this terrace - my fourth New York garden - is still a homecoming. And right now it feels distinctly tropical.

The Thai limes (you can also call them makrut, as they are known in Thailand - Citrus hystrix) are flourishing.

While they are better known for their aromatic leaves, the fruits' rind is intensely fragrant. I used some in a Thai green curry a couple of nights ago.

After looking peaky (I would describe it as a failure thrive - FFT - a medical diagnosis that I first encountered with reference to child deaths in 19th century English workhouses. Cause? "Failure to thrive.") in mid summer, with drooping top growth and yellowing mature leaves, the curry leaf tree (Murraya koenigii) revived after some serious June intervention: root pruning, repotting in the same pot, and a heavy prune of its branches. It revived. Of all the plants I have grown curry leaf has been the most challenging. But I think I understand it, now. For vigor it will require frequent pruning - top and bottom. And unlike every other plant I know it likes a little water, every day. This is the opposite of the deep watering I usually recommend. To complicate matters, indoors in winter I water it only once a week...

Galangal! I harvested some of the rhizome for that same green curry, making it about as authentic as it gets. The leaves are also very fragrant. This is Alpinia galanga.

And my other galangal - Kaempferia galanga. The coolest plant on the terrace. It was dormant all winter (indoors), meaning no leaves at all. So I was thrilled to see the first green shoots appear in May. It has spread extra fast since August, and is still making tiny, remarkably pretty white flowers that last a day, giving it another common name of resurrection lily. The leaves are delicious shredded into curries and braises and have an affinity for vinegar (I slow-cook often with the vinegars I make at home).

The curry leaf and both galangals came from Companion Plants in Ohio, all in four-inch pots. You can read more about the galangals' journey here.

These subtropicals and tropicals must come in, soon. Night time temperatures are dipping down to 50'F and when they stay below, I make the move. We brought the curry leaf in last night when 45' were predicted: Miss Fussy Pants.

Friday, October 4, 2019

By the dawn's early light

It's a long ride, from ORT in Johannesburg to JFK. Fifteen hours. But they can pass easily enough. If your usual last row is empty and you can actually lie yourself mostly flat, and you wake with only three hours to go. Through the window New York appears in lights in the changing night's darkness.

And it is only after the grumpy customs officer has stamped your passport and said grudgingly, Welcome home, and after the baggage has been collected (the fragile-marked box filled with wine deeply dented as usual by the spewing chute at this airport), and after walking through the double doors to the arrivals hall, and you see this tall man and his instant smile, not seen for four weeks, that you realize again how good it is to be met by him, at dawn.

My nose told me something had broken in that box. And my friend Don's fragrant bay extract was the victim of the chute. But everything else was spared.

We have been looking at the biltong I bought from The Biltong Shop (above, in Constantia Village, Cape Town) for days - it made it past the sniffer beagles, and tonight I think we will taste some thin slices. They are to savored. There is really nothing like it, Stateside.


Sunday, September 29, 2019


On Instagram, in late August, my cousin Andrea posted a picture of a place. It was beautiful, and she sounded happy. I had just booked a last-minute ticket to Cape Town to see my mom. She sounded sad. I had plenty of work to do but all of it could be delivered remotely. Walks, talks, and classes requiring my physical presence only begin again in October. The Frenchman was very understanding. He always is.

The ticket gave me a month to be home with my mom and Selina, and I decided within hours of seeing Andy's picture that I would like to spend a couple of days at her spot, too. With friends or in silence. So in Brooklyn I tapped a touchpad and booked some Karoo emptiness, thousands of miles and two hemispheres away from teeming New York City.

A couple of weeks later my friends Jacqueline and Willemien, biologist and artist, were driving with me in Mogashagasha, the beloved Landcruiser, heading north into the edges of semi-desert Karoo from spring green Cape Town.

After leaving the N1 - the artery that connects Cape Town and Johannesburg - opposite Matjiesfontein we steered west on dirt roads, each smaller than the last. Several opened and carefully closed gates later we saw some sheep, and knew we were in the right place.

The biologist opened the last gate, and we were there. Almost. We passed neat staff quarters and our hosts' unoccupied stone farmhouse, and then bumped and rocked our way up the final narrow track.

Snyderskloof Cottage. The feathered branches of pepper trees (Schinus molle) blew in the afternoon wind.

Every inch of crushed shale and earth around the cottage was neatly raked.

A hammock rocked under the trees. A dipping pool and outdoor shower called, but the weather was too cold for them. We would be building fires, and I had ordered wood ahead of our arrival. Camelthorn stood stacked neatly in bags near the outdoor fire.

For a three-night, two-day stay we had come over-equipped with food, and could easily have opened a (really very good) pop-up cocktail bar with our collection of wines and hooches. We made ourselves at home.

The cottage has no electricity. This was part of the appeal, at least to people spoiled by the ease of switches and heat and floods of instant, effortless light. The kitchen had an efficient little two-burner gas range as well as an indoor fireplace large enough to cook on. There were many fresh candles in candle holders (I hate it when an old, melted candle greets you - very depressing) and polished oil lamps. And lots of back-up candles. There were plenty of matches. In fact everything we could have needed was there. Even the knives in the kitchen were sharp. This is unusual.

There was a lot of red. It could have been a disaster, but somehow it wasn't.

Two roomy bedrooms, good (and beautiful) linens, and lovely light. 

Willemien's digs were part of the living room or voorkamer - more like a sunroom, with the large fireplace at the opposite end. Somehow I missed getting a picture of Jacqueline's room. She had a particularly fluffy white duvet.

The traditional stoep was a deck with a wonderful view of the endlessness. In the mornings and evenings we watched interesting local rats scamper back and forth with bundles of bedding (grasses and leaves, not our sheets) in their mouths in the field below - Karoo bush rats. We saw some striped mice. We met the local birds: a tame robin chat,  a pair of southern grey tits, a posse of black headed canaries, and bulbuls. Naturally I set up a feeding station. At night we could turn on tiny, twinkly solar-powered fairy lights, not quite as bright as the Milky Way in the starred blackness above our heads.

We settled in. I worked on my local mixing skills. Jacqueline identified plants in her field guides.

The artist worked on a commission.

And I made fires. This simple trivet is brilliant.

We counted bunnies. This is just a fraction of the bunnies. A very small fraction.

There were bunnies everywhere. On the last day we saw bunnies we had not seen on the first.

                                                      We went for walks. 

                         The shale was incredible. Ancient mud. It built the cottage. 

From a distance the low Karoo shrubs are monotonous. Up close there is a lot going on. Pelargonium crithmifolium.

Cocktail hour came round again. I loved the pepper trees' fragrant leaves. The trees are synonymous with the Karoo, even though they are South American imports. They are often the lone tall green thing shading a roadside picnic table beside a road that ribbons into the shimmering horizon.

Rain arrived on our last day (an event in the dry Karoo). The weather turned snow-cold. 

On that last, chilly night, I cooked a lamb knuckle tagine indoors. 

And then it was time to leave. So we got a flat. At the last gate the air came hissing out of a back tyre like an angry snake. And to my disgust I found the tools had been left behind in Cape Town. How stupid. But luckily I had pumped the spare wheel before leaving - we had been warned of sharp stones.

Jacqueline, a veteran of field trips and the things can go wrong in the middle of nowhere, wisely counseled me to turn back toward the cottage, with a farm en route, rather than limping on to tiny Matjiesfontein, further away. We stopped on a ridge and I WhatsApp'd our host, Emmarie, far way in Cape Town. Despite being near nowhere we always had excellent reception. Emmarie immediately called back and then sent a very reassuring message with a set of three galloping horse emojis. Kerneels was on his way.

Kerneels and his wife Zelda live on site and take care of the cottage's needs. And apparently also city guests who can't change their own tyres. About ten minutes later, far in the distance, we saw a white shape with an encouraging plume of dust behind it. Kerneels in his bakkie, and really galloping.

He arrived with Ouboet and the two men got to work. Fast. They even repaired and pumped the punctured tyre - in case it happened again (please god, no).

It was a sobering and embarrassing experience for me. I do not see myself as the stereotypical and helpless female. But there I was. So I have some basic mechanical re-education to undergo. I just wish I could take M'gasha with me to New York to learn on her.

Before reaching the N1 again we stopped at a ridge that we had begun to explore the day before (see my previous post for some of our finds) - Jacqueline begged for 20 minutes - Willemien and I shivered in the car - and she came back with this gorgeous little Hermannia.

Back in Cape Town, friends dropped off,  I washed the 4 x 4 of the red dust and clay mud and vacuumed her.  My father always kept his cars impeccably clean, and the Frenchman and I have similar habits.

I took out her protective blankets and mats.

And then I found the hidden (dusty!) tool compartment. Complete with jack. 

The tools had been there, all the time.

That Brooklyn expression came to mind: 



Friday, September 27, 2019

Karoo Flowers

The flower spotting on our three-night Karoo wegbreek (escape) began from the car. I am usually the one hollering, Flower! or What's that? or just, Ooh! while the patient Frenchman slows, stops, and backs up to the desired spot. This time, because I was driving, it was Jacqueline-the-evolutionary-biologist-slash-closet-botanist spotting the blooms beside the road, and me slowing down and then reversing.

Beside the turn-off from the N1 (the tarred artery between Cape Town and Johannesburg) to Matjiesfontein, on our three-woman-way to the stone cottage at Snyderskloof, we found Moraea miniata.

After we had settled into our new home, we went for a walk up the dirt track behind the little cottage, into the low shale hills that provided the stone our walls were made of. Above, Cyanella growing right in the track.

Holothrix villosa, sheltering within the skeleton of a former bush. We saw dozens (of the orchids, but also dead bushes).

Monsonia (previously classified as Sarcocaulon), with silky, ephemeral flowers, spikily defended by sharp thorns. Flammable, apparently, and used as kindling. Its common name is bushman's candle.

Our walk gave us a wide view over our temporary homeland.

Jacqueline photographing Cyanella in a dry stream bed, stepped by shale.

It looks hot, but it was chilly. And within these apparently uniform sepia undulations, small botanical treasures.

Like Crassula tomentosa growing in the eroded bank of a seasonal stream - dry when we were there and probably only briefly in spate after serious rain.

Unsteady in the cold wind, tiny, ethereal Ixia rapunculoides.

And on another day, wandering on my own, I collected Pteronia incana (asbos in Afrikaans, meaning ash bush) - then unknown to me, but very appealing because of its intensely aromatic leaves; and Pentzia incana (the iconic and fragrant karoo bush) - both went into some juniper-forward and rather nice gin to make bitters for later vermouth.

On a drive back towards Matjiesfontein, the biologist begged to be let out near a rocky ridge. She found exquisite Aptosimum procumbens - the tiny Karoo violet. Last seen here and here.

And with a better sense of scale.

Ferraria crispa

And finally: Crassula columnaris. It flowers once in ten years. And then it dies.



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