Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Grow Journey and the stories that seeds tell

Sometimes, on a rainy day, when plans have been thwarted, there is time to dart down a rabbit hole.

(The plans included photographing finished Douglas fir recipes in daylight, but we ain't got no daylight, so next best thing: plant talk.)

When Aaron von Frank, co-founder of Grow Journey wrote to me a few weeks ago and said that December's seed of the month packet would have stories to tell, he was not kidding.

The email from Grow Journey that precedes each month's package reads: "...your December seed varieties have a fairytale/storybook theme. Folklore like this shows how human civilizations throughout history have emphasized the deeply ingrained importance that passalong foods hold in their livelihoods and culture, by embedding those foods within their oral and written traditions. By contrast, modern stories are rarely about varieties of food we treasure..."

The very first thing that came to mind when I thought about food, plants, and folklore was an illustration that opened one of my favourite childhood stories, which resided in an anthology - red-cloth bound and enormous, called  the Children's Treasury of Literature in Colour (Louis and Bryna Untermeyer, 1966): Rapunzel. In the picture I remembered,  luscious green plants grew in dark brown soil, behind a wall. It was one of many childhood images that informed my idea of gardening.

And guess what was in the seed packages? The third packet I looked at contained seeds of mâche ('Baron' cultivar). The description on the packet reads: "Mâche (rhymes with squash) is so delicious that the Brothers Grimm say it's the plant Rapunzel's parents stole from the  witch's garden, forcing them to give up their first child as penance."

Rabbit hole.

I found the illustrations I remembered, online. The illustrator is Gordon Laite.

And then I found the story.

"There were once a man and a woman who had long in vain wished for a child. At length the woman hoped that God was about to grant her desire. These people had a little window at the back of their house from which a splendid garden could be seen, which was full of the most beautiful flowers and herbs. It was, however, surrounded by a high wall, and no one dared to go into it because it belonged to an enchantress, who had great power and was dreaded by all the world.

"One day the woman was standing by this window and looking down into the garden, when she saw a bed which was planted with the most beautiful rampion - Rapunzel, and it looked so fresh and green that she longed for it, and had the greatest desire to eat some. This desire increased every day, and as she knew that she could not get any of it, she quite pined away, and began to look pale and miserable.

"Then her husband was alarmed, and asked, "What ails you, dear wife?"

"Ah," she replied, "if I can't eat some of the rampion, which is in the garden behind our house, I shall die."

[She really, really liked salad. I can relate.]

"The man, who loved her, thought, sooner than let your wife die, bring her some of the rampion yourself, let it cost what it will. At twilight, he clambered down over the wall into the garden of the enchantress, hastily clutched a handful of rampion, and took it to his wife. She at once made herself a salad of it, and ate it greedily. It tasted so good to her - so very good, that the next day she longed for it three times as much as before. If he was to have any rest, her husband must once more descend into the garden..."

Which is when the poo hit the fan:

Note the nice radishes and black cat...

...one of the other seed packets is filled with 'French Breakfast' radishes. I seem to have lost my radish touch, though. They are the first crop I remember growing as a very small girl. No problem. Now I get huge leaves, very little radish. Most sources cite too much nitrogen in the soil - I do not fertilize.

Back to the story. I looked up the plant referred to as rampion in  the English translation (remember the brothers Grimm were German). It seems that the common name rapunzel (she was named after this tempting plant) could refer to one of two plants: either mâche (also known as lambs lettuce and corn salad), as well as to Campanula rapunculus, which was eaten as a vegetable in ye olde days. Plants often have more than one common name, so it's hard to know which is the right plant. But I am grateful for the nostalgic trip into childhood. That old book still sits on the little bookshelf in my bedroom in Constantia, and contains many other botanical treasures.

Of course, in typical Grimm fashion, terrible things happened (as they do): violence, blindness, banishment. And then some foraging. The blinded prince was forced to survive in the woods on "roots and berries" as he wandered in darkness.

All in one tale, some important themes of my life: edible plants, a passion for salad, foraging. And the black cat, of course (ours behaved better, by a whisker). Also, against all odds, I found my prince.

I cannot wait to  plant this new mâche. Mostly because it means gardening will have begun, again. I do have some very small plants from last spring's self sown seeds which germinated in October and I hope they will overwinter, as they did last year. It is one of the most rewarding of cold weather greens and trying a new cultivar will be fun.

We are just back from Montreal's outlying suburbs where we shopped at a supermarket chain called IGA. I love it (the cheese!). But in the salad section I bought beautiful mâche - something rarely seen in the States (once at Trader Joe's).  The first time I ever saw it sold commercially was in another French-speaking suburb, this time outside Geneva, one snowy December in opera singing days.

I am very happy to be able to grow it now, especially having learned - the hard way - that it simply will not germinate until the nights are reliably chilly, below 50'F.

Gift season is here; seeds are such rewarding ones, because they give back and they teach.

Seeds represent hope, courage and perseverance.

Keep digging.


  1. I do wish I had a garden. Reading what you have written about Grow Journey all year, would love to plant seeds and learn how to grow things. Seems very worthwhile (not to mention tasty and healthy), and these days, positive pursuits are especially important.

    First thing I noticed in your picture was the black cat. :) Thought, 'Well, that's really appropriate!' Not to be maudlin, but I still miss Estorbo. Have never met you and did not know him in person, but wow, he was just such a presence in your family. Mary

    1. Hi Mary - Could you grow some things indoors? I am learning more and more about semi tropical and tropical edible plants. They do require a very bright room, but can be very rewarding.

      Some saladings and herbs can be grown as microgreens indoors, too - enough to snip onto sandwiches and salads, and still get the thrill of 'I grew this!'

      We miss Estorbo very much.

    2. I was just missing Estorbo very much last night. xo

    3. Marie - H'm. Now giving great thought to an indoor mini-garden. Have two large sash windows that face west, so get good to strong sun most days, and the radiator (old building) in that room is turned off, so the atmosphere should be decent. Thank you for letting me know. Green leaves and herbs sound a bit less challenging than tropical edible plants, so will start there. :)

  2. I love mâche, both to grow and to eat. In Germany its use and cultivation are deeply ingrained and it is ubiquitous in the colder months. It has a litany of different names across the German-speaking world, and people will often only know it by that local name. In Kassel, where my family is from, people know it exclusively as "Nüsschen", literally "little nut"; in the southwest where I was born and lived before coming to the US it is known as "Ackersalat" oder "Feldsalat", both meaning "field salad".

  3. We have grown it here in our Vermont gardens. Love it.

  4. Mache and all greens grow well here (PNW) and I sometimes see it in the stores, but homegrown is so much tastier. The first time I had a "field green" salad was in, of all places, Spokane, WA back in the early 2000's. I've been addicted ever since.


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