Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Edibles' Good Spirits Bash, 2012

I had to pace myself at Edible (Magazine)'s annual Good Spirits' Bash on Mercer Street on Tuesday evening. Two vast rooms. Table after table of artisanal (that is, human scale) brews and taste after taste of beautiful and surprising - a rare combination - tidbits.

Armed with forks acquired at the door, wrist-ringed with blue hospital bands marking us as Those Who Belonged Within,  we traveled from hand sliced ham from Salumeria Rosi's rosy pig leg, to Whitehall's just-set savoury panna cotta topped with raw tuna, to morsels of slow cooked pork ribs with sweet pickles, to pork shoulder shredded in a broth rich with anise and rutabaga (yes, that can be a good thing), to Veselka's melting pierogis, to an unlikely ceviche of duck - the Frenchman might have returned four times for another sliver, to fresh oysters to... Hendrick's gin cocktails mixed with blood orange juice: Hm, tastes like Kool-Aid, murmured Vince speculatively (OK, moving along), to Eden's ice ciders - vibrant and snappily dry (one of my top two tastes of the night - brewed in Vermont and flavoured with understated basil, or sold in slim bottles and sweet as a dessert wine), to Crop Vodka's cucumberish coldness, to the Brooklyn Gin punch bowl. Where I could have stayed all night. And to whose cool depths I may have returned four times. Well, three. Maybe. And it's not even made in Brooklyn. Do I care? Hell, no! It is stunning. And their punch just charmed the entertainer in me. A circle of melting lemon ice infused with all its herbs and spices - nine of which I have forgotten, bar orris root and angelica.

There was a lot we did not drink, but we have no regrets. Only very fond memories. It was a helluva shindig and beautifully done. Thanks, Edible (and thanks Ed.).

Chicken of the Woods in Constantia

 Photo: Maureen Viljoen

Not the feathered kind. The delicious, oak-hugging kind. I feel betrayed. I checked this tree weekly for signs of fungal life while I was in Cape Town. Last year it fruited in mid February (it is a summer mushroom), in time for us to gather some and enjoy it for supper, while my mother abstained and waited to cart us all to hospital. Then, it was the first of this kind I had ever seen, and we ID'd it with the help of Gary Lincoff in New York, and Ellen in an airport in Alberqueque, New Mexico. Instant Internet.

Fortunately it is an easy one to identify, with no scary lookalikes, and we slept in peace that night. This is, I think, Laetiporous cincinnatus - white-pored chicken of the woods, as opposed to Laetiporus sulphureus, which has orange pores underneath. This version is supposed to be even better than the other. Now, it has fruited again. And this unreachable mushroom is 8,000 miles away from me. The pain of an ex patriate forager. Can you feel it?

Photo: Maureen Viljoen

Does it taste like chicken? Well, the texture might be likened to tender chicken breast. This mushroom lends itself to slow cooking, as it is very dense. Or to being treated like a schnitzel. Or to being chopped into a duxelle with fine onion and sauteed as a topping for mushroomy pizzas, a stuffing for dumplings, a soup base. It has a wonderfully mushroomy aroma.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Agapanthus borer

Klein Constantia wine estate

It is hard to explain just how deep agapanthus run in the veins of South African horticulturists. Their blood is blue.

Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden

When I was little there was one kind of agapanthus (probably straight A. praecox) - big, pale blue, like the ones above - blooming over the December and January school holidays. So associated with South African summers that we called them Christmas flowers. Ooh, look, Mommy, Christmas flowers! The lagoon at Knysna ringed with them, beside the other ubiquitous holiday plant, hydrangea. Great pink and lilac mopheads gradually paling under the hot southern sun. Years that felt like lifetimes.

Agapanthus were the plants you forgot about. They bloomed, no matter what you did or didn't do to them. So they were planted en masse, beside highways and  in parking lots and on sidewalks.


Then came the breeding boom. And agapanthus are now not only the pale blue moons of my childhood. They are fat and round, graceful and pendulous, deep purple, black and bright lilac. Bi-coloured and statuesque, pure white and tiny, whispering with blue ruffles or singing with intense sapphire. The hybrids are endless. They are highly collectable. They are everywhere.

My mother's garden

Before the bust comes the bubble, right?


Enter the agapanthus borer, family unknown. That's right. It is nameless. So far.

It started with a bud, last December. The green wasting from it, the colour turning yellow, the sap drying up so that the plump point became soft. Soon, other buds began to droop. On closer inspection, a black hole in the bud or at its base. A bruise on the stem. Violence had occurred.

Snap it off and the hole extends into the long stem. Cut the stem open lengthwise and is revealed a striped caterpillar, entombed. Bud after bud succumbs.

It is hard to not to be filled with revulsion at a creature whose only purpose in life seems to be to destroy beauty. An army of one (by one, by...). The caterpillars are the offspring of a moth.

I started searching the web. Nothing. Except a discussion in June 2011 in a Cape Horticltural Society newsletter where Mike Picker, who wrote the book on insects (literally - The Field Guide to Insects of South Africa, published by Struik) writes:

“I have noticed it in my own garden as well, and as you have no doubt observed, it attacks both the buds, stems and rhizomes of Agapanthus. It is a moth larva, and it’s the first time I have seen it, so I suspect that it has just appeared/spread this year [2011]. It may represent a species from another part of SA, as many insects have moved southwards recently. I think it might turn out to be a real problem, although insects are very sensitive to short-term climate variations, and this summer was very unusual in that regard.I have done a quick scan on the net, and there appears to be nothing on them. I can't be certain of the family, although they are probably Noctuidae (same family as the Crinum borer, Brithys crinii).”

He then invites members to bag suspects and drop them in his mailbox!

But if you do have the borer, please take a picture of it (in focus!) and please write to Dr Picker, indicating your suburb, and evidence of the borer (description of affected plants, lack of flowers, rotting of central leaves and rhizome, and possible observation of the caterpillar). Include the date when it was noticed.

Send observations to :  mike.picker (at)

The signs of a borer attack are yellow and brown central leaves in an agapanthus clump, that pull away easily from the plant. The caterpillars generally enter the flower bud and eat their way downwards through the flower stem into the rhizome, partially destroying it. The result is a lack of flowers on most agapanthus. The caterpillars are found on and in rhizomes that are dug up, or in stems, and are cream with black spots.

And I, alarmist that I am, connector of crawling dots, photographed these disas on Table Mountain (where Agapanthus africanus occurs naturally) and suggested on iSpot that this may be evidence of the borer. Botanical firebrand Dr Tony Rebelo's response was dismissive (correctly so, if we're talking science): "Did you dissect the parasitized buds? What on earth makes you suspect Agapanthus Caterpillars?: Why not Arum Lily Borers or Fig Tree Borers? Get us a critter and we will try and identify it without prejudice or preconception. Something has to stop the world being covered sky high in Disa uniflora!!"

So the man has a sense of humour.

Disa bud, Table Mountain

Fine, all true. But as a non bona fide botanist I was not about to start picking Disa uniflora in the national park.

But circumstantially? It ain't no fig tree borer. Why would it be? And arums don't grow that high. Though it's a possibility. But agapanthus abound. And the modus operandi looks. just. the. same.

Maybe the disas will make people sit up and take notice. Because right now they think it's just some gardening ladies in the suburbs crying, Worm! I'm curious about when it will begin to affect growers and nurseries.

Once the caterpillar works its way down the stalk, having destroyed the bud and turned it into black mush, it heads for the crown of the plant at soil level, there to pupate, and begin again. So far, the only solutions are to remove it mechanically (meaning find and handpick it out), or to douse the crown of the plant in poison. Poison, being posion, kills everything in its path. Dead zone. Ferndale, a local nursery in Constantia recommends poison. They even have a designated poison person selling poisons, whose personality matches the product. I am not a fan.

So. In my mother's garden, the agapanthus are being inspected and cut down and divided. Some of them have been doused. Those big blue swathes are now empty brown patches.

The only upside, at the moment, is that this creates room for improvisation. Meaning: new plants.

When in doubt, shop.

*** If anyone is able to photograph this caterpillar, please do. Check your agapanthus. My image is not very helpful for ID purposes, and if you are able to send me a better one we can post it to iSpot so that the pros are able to observe it better.

My mother's garden

 Images and story by Marianne Alexander. Garden by Maureen Viljoen.

My mother's Cape Town garden was featured in a five page spread in February's edition of Garden and Home (South Africa).

I spoke to my mom on Sunday and she sounded quite sad. It's that agapanthus borer. She is having to deal, clump by clump, with her afflicted agapanthus collection, which is extensive, and beautiful.

More about the borer later today. Arm yourselves with a stiff drink.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Eating greens

It was a week of broccoli rabe. I get a craving for it, sometimes. Chewy, leafy, slightly bitter.

Wilted: Blanch in boiling water for about two minutes, then refresh under cold water and squeeze out very gently. Pan-sear with olive oil, garlic and lemon zest (add the leaves once the garlic is translucent). Hot red pepper never hurts, either.

Or caramelized with soy, sugar and lemon juice. Eat with chopsticks.

Flowers in the House

Flowers in the house. And some wheatgrass sprouting, for the cat. And the lovely Home Made, by Yvette van Boven, published by Stewart, Tabori and Chang.

I consider bought, cut flowers a luxury. Despite the fact that I think they change any room they're in. Or that I find them indispensable in my life. Or that, without flowers, I'm not sure if I would be.

This year, there shall be flowers. Every week.

(Visit Small But Charming today, and you'll find links to a lot more flowers in the house.)

Sunday, February 26, 2012

New York graffiti

Vertical in flavour, from the past week:

 Broadway Lafayette, F platform, downtown

 Coney Island Pier

Bergen Street F, Brooklyn-bound platform

Saturday, February 25, 2012

A cat's life

Wind coming? 

We have been promised 60mph gusts through Saturday night. So the fig and some other pots came down off the side of the terrace to sit out the gales on the stone table. That miserable-looking plant on the right is oregano.   A creeping form. Not very satisfactory, aesthetically. I'll get a bushier version this spring. 

Cat leaves terrace to check out roof.

But comes back to dig into his salad bar.

There are worse ways to pass one's feline time.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Jamaica Bay Gas Pipeline

The Rockaways

The House of Representatives* passed a bill on the 7th of February approving the construction of a three-mile gas pipeline running underneath and across Jamaica Bay through Brooklyn and Queens.

Much of it would be beneath the Gateway National Recreation Area - including Floyd Bennett Field, Dead Horse and Horse Shoe Bays and Fort Tilden (home to Frank's Beach Farm), the latter on the barrier island of the Rockaways, and the entrance to Jamaica Bay (and the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge). A hugely important and highly threatened ecosystem.

The plan to build the gas pipeline is outlined succinctly in an article written by Angelina Tala, on Sheepshead Bites, a local news blog edited by Ned Berke.

It was first brought to my attention in an email from the blogger who writes Outside Now. She gardens at the well known community garden at Floyd Bennett Field. Apart from the website above and local bloggers, mainstream media have not yet touched this topic, possibly because it has been smuggled in under their radar. That will change. But for now...


Horse Shoe Bay

The point is not a knee jerk reaction to the plan, whose details remain obscure, buried in paperwork. In principle it may be good - gas is cleaner than oil. The point is that no one was told of the plan, nor was the public canvassed about or informed of the potential impact it would have on the very sensitive and fragile area through which the pipeline will tunnel. It has been kept very quiet, the public in the dark.

*Representative: "One that represents another."

Really? Sure did not represent me.

Boulders Beach, Cape Town

Boulders Beach at low tide. So that one can leopard crawl through the secret (although not-that-secret-anymore) tunnel between two massive boulders, and emerge onto what feels like an undiscovered island paradise.

You can see the high water marks on the rocks.

 The water is beautiful, and bobbing with kelp where it runs deep.

The penguins are unflappable professionals.

Some, quite in love.

Small cool bag = ice for gins and tonics. A ritual. We could have stayed all day.

The other tourists, the ones who have not found the tunnel in the rocks. They are looking at the main penguin beach, where humans are not allowed. 

I like ours best.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Cape Floral Kingdom, on foot

Amphithalea imbricata

In the most recent edition of Soiled and Seeded I have an essay and pictures about walking on Table Mountain, Cape Town's unique garden-in-the-background. If you need any info about the flowers pictured there, please ask - I think they may have been deemed too bulky for inclusion...and while you are there, check out the wonderful images of marginal gardens in another article in the current issue. And then some tundra details, unveiled.


 April, 2011

I loved this courtyard off Clinton Street in Brooklyn Heights.

 June, 2011

 December, 2011

Last Saturday. The apricot tree? Gone.


Has a favourite tree of yours ever disappeared?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The crocus post

Brooklyn Botanic Garden, on the side facing Flatbush Avenue, there is a berm. Slope, low hill. Between traffic and garden.

Right now it is a snow of crocus. Outside the fence a small boy stomped on them methodically while his mother chatted, obliviously. I barked at him, the international lingo of Hey!!! and wagged a finger. He stopped. He knew. I think he will become a stock broker.

I have never had much time for crocuses. They are charming, yes. But predictable.

Until now.

I am won over.