Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Kahili ginger - botanical mugger in disguise

Late fireworks on the terrace. This beautiful flowering ginger-cousin is a species of Hedychium, and was a very kind and unexpected gift earlier this year from a garden design client, who knew how excited I was to hear that his ginger relative had actually bloomed.

When the giant plant was delivered to our door in early September, beautifully wrapped in burlap, I hefted it up and out to the terrace and then did some reading. 

Don't judge a plant by its spectacular cover. Hedychiums, native to Asia, are known collectively as flowering gingers. They are apparently popular in the nursery trade. (I had no idea.) Bought and planted by loving plant owners the gingers have escaped, and this has led their becoming some of the most invasive plants on the planet. In mild parts of the world where they are not native they take over. Even in Cape Town I have seen a similar ginger clogging a stream near my mother's house. In Hawaii Kahili ginger - as this species (H. gardenerianum) is known, there - has a price on its head. In Florida it is running rampant. 

In New York's cold winter climate it doesn't stand much chance of becoming a thug, of course. If left out doors it would succumb. But in Hawaii my friend Sunny Savage is devising ways of dealing with the habitat-altering invasive creatively: by eating it. (You can download her Savage Kitchen app to learn more.)

We will talk more about native and invasive edible plants this Saturday, October 31st, at the New York Botanical Garden; and there are now some tickets available! Click on the date links to book. My second fall class was shifted from Thursday because of predicted torrential rain, and not every student could make the rain date. (Apologies if you are one of them.)


NYBG Class, 31 October 2020

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Fingerlime and Foraging with a Difference

Fat fingerlimes, very close to being fully ripe. On the same branches there are dozens of tiny fruit that will be ripe only in many months' time. 

Looking at the weather ahead, next week is when all the citrus (and the bay tree!) will come indoors: overnight temperatures will be below 50'F and then in the low 40's consistently. I try to leave the subtropicals out for as long as possible, and while they can survive much colder temperatures, the outdoor-indoor change should not be too extreme. 

In other news: We will be gathering for the Trash Forage in Prospect Park on Saturday at 10.30am at the Wellhouse. Please reserve your ticket to help us via the PayPal button below (it's $25 and will be refunded in full after the forage, unless you prefer to donate it to the Prospect Park Alliance - it's your place holder for the wild-inspired cake I will be offering, post-trash collection. You could also just show up, and please do, but without knowing numbers I can't guarantee a slice).

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Apples from Maine, in Brooklyn

While we were in Maine I collected apples. 

Apples from the lichen-hung trees near the house. 

Those were yellow with a blushing cheek. The muskrats who lived in the pond behind our cottage liked them (and we liked the muskrats, never having been able to watch them, before). So I call those apples Muskrat.

Red apples from the field above the cottage. 

Pink apples from a shed on our friend Kirstin's family-land, where she and her husband David had been collecting them. 

And so back in Brooklyn I made three ferments. One for each apple. If all goes well with the wild yeasts (I don't add commercial yeast), the result will be three different vinegars. Today I strained them.

The murky brown jars? Well. We'll see. Cider. As in hard cider. Made from all the leftover apples mushed together. Ideally, you'd have a press. Or even a juicer. I have a food processor. I have my doubts. So let's not focus on the cider.


Today I strained Muskrat, Red, and Pink. They will be covered loosely (because they need air), and in some weeks acetobacter will have converted the sugars into acetic acid. That's vinegar.  

And I use it a lot. Wild vinegars, made from flowers, or fruit, or aromatic twigs for that matter, have a depth that is instructive for anyone who has never tasted them. My feral vinegars become drinks, sauces, cooking liquids, the brine for quick-pickled raw vegetables, and yes, vinaigrettes. 

And when we taste them, we remember a time, and a place. Far away, too short, and very special.


Come and help us clean the park, October 24th

Friday, October 16, 2020

The Unmentionables

Another happy surprise on the terrace this late summer has been the Gomphocarpus - a plant I used to know as Asclepias, a milkweed. It is African, and I met it only twice in southern Africa. Once in Botswana, when I was teenager, visiting the mind-blowingly beautiful Okavango Delta for the first (and maybe only) time; and later with the Frenchman, driving through the little town of Rhodes, in South Africa's eastern Cape. Very different habitats. 

And here it is, growing as an annual in a pot in Brooklyn, New York. It was an impulse-buy at the always-pleasing Gowanus Nursery.

It is known colloquially as hairy balls. Or bishops balls (I mean...?). And more politely as balloon plant. In warmer North American climates it is very invasive and has earned noxious weed status. 

In Brooklyn its beautiful flowers were Snack No. 1 with the various wasps and hornets that visited the terrace this summer. I think they might be strong enough to break free of its milkweed-entrapment-sneakiness - the flowers actually snag the legs of visiting insects, making them struggle, and in struggling they toss pollen around. OK for robust hornets, not so much for smaller honeybees. Milkweeds are mean. 

But yes, very compelling, late in the season. 


Trash Forage, 24 October, Prospect Park

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Goodnight, Moon (flower)

The fragrant white moonflowers (Ipomea alba) have given us more pleasure than I could have expected.

When I garden, half of me is an ecological observer, delivering constant - and constantly evolving - criticism: don't plant this, do plant that, this is awful, that is...well, grey-zone. The other half is hungry, and a hedonist, gardening for the necessary pleasure of it. 

And I wanted a fast vine to cover the trellis to shield our eyes from the spotlights that shine on us from a nearby lot.

The moonflower draws my inner critic's fire. It can be highly invasive. In my hometown of Cape Town, South Africa, where freezing temperatures are very rare, closely-related morning glories (Ipomea) run (glory-iously?) rampant, strangling everything they can even slightly lean on, or bend over, or clasp onto. They alter habitats. Back in the Northern Hemisphere in our previous,  in-ground garden at 1st Place, where freezing winters at least kept things in check, morning glories planted by Someone Else bloomed and seeded and germinated again relentlessly. Every early summer dozens of little vines lassoed and constricted everything, anything. I loathed them for the weeding-work they gave me, for the way they tilted tall plants and bent the Solomon's seal to their persistent will.

Up here, on the Windsor Terrace, in their single large pot, against their birch pole trellis, the wide moonflowers open their scented satellite dishes and fold them again within twelve hours. Their seed (hallucinogenic, if you are so inclined ) has nowhere fertile to fall. The roofs below are barren. The pot itself is easy enough to weed. The birds will not eat them and spread them. Birds are high, already. 

And so it's OK to like them. 

We watch these delicate blossoms open, and close. They tilt and lean like they are listening. There is so much to hear. They mark the passage of the International Space Station as it passes overhead. They see the birds, the rare bats. Maybe they watch us. 

Ice shelves are bursting. Whales are giving up. Loved ones are losing those they love. Friends are fighting genetic landmines and sneak attacks from rogue cells.

We plant seeds, thinking how they will be, in another season.


Trash Forage - 24 October

Monday, October 12, 2020

Trash Forage - Prospect Park

I am organizing a different kind of walk for October 24th in Prospect Park: A Trash Forage. Instead of learning about edible plants, we will be helping the park by collecting the different kinds of trash people leave behind their sorry selves.

Please join me at 10.30am at the Wellhouse for two hours of trash grabbing-and-bagging, followed by a reward of cake. 

Tickets to reserve your spot are $25 and will be refunded to you in full after the walk, assuming you attended. 

We will be supported by the Prospect Park Alliance, the NGO whose unenviable job it is to take care of a vast public park that has seen unprecedented number of visitors during the pandemic. People have sought solace (and sometimes shelter) in the green space. At the same time the park has suffered unprecedented budget cuts by the City of New York. Even in normal times City funding of our public parks is shamefully minimal. 

"Although City parks make up 14% of NYC’s land, the Parks Department receives only 0.6% of the City’s total budget," writes Molly Fraser, on the website for the NYLCV (The New League of Conservation Voters). That is not a typo. Zero point six percent.

She continues: "Urban forests support the City’s environmental health, filtering out harmful pollutants, cooling temperatures, and supporting wildlife. In NYC, trees filter out an estimated 1,300 tons of pollutants, save nearly $94 million in health costs, capture 2 billion gallons of stormwater runoff, and store 1.2 million tons of carbon annually."

And how do you quantify the therapy, mental and physical, that the park has provided during the COVID crisis? 

The park has become everything to all people. Living room, bedroom, kitchen, work out area and yes, toilet. It needs help.

On our Trash Forage on Saturday the 24th we will meet to sign in, receive trash grabbers, bags and gloves. There will be cleaning supplies on hand but bring your own pocket sanitiser. Masks and social distancing are mandatory. 

After we have filled our bags we will clean our hands (again!) and gather for the freshly-baked cake in a nice kumbaya circle. 


My Books

Saturday, October 10, 2020

October in New York

Seaside Solidago sempervirens, on a quiet afternoon with dunes and waves and birds.

This solidago (a.k.a. goldenrod) is late to bloom, and even here at the beach, honey bees found it.

Nearby were autumn olive trees (very invasive Elaeagnus umbellata), heavy with fruit. I love eating them straight up. They are reminiscent of red currants, slightly sweeter, but more tannic.

And October is always hen month: hen of the woods, maitake (Japanese for "dancing mushroom"- because of the happy dance it inspires). Grifola frondosa is a wonderful mushroom for beginners to find, because it is so distinctive. And if you find a nice fresh one, it can weigh upwards of five pounds, easily, so there is ample opportunity to experiment in the kitchen. Some of my standard ways to deploy it include red wine soup (lots of sautéed mushroom, onion, some good bacon, a little flour, lots of red wine, bay leaves), and mushroom shepherd's pie. I think this one may become sausageless rolls, as in mushroom rolls.

These mushrooms grow on living trees, which are they slowly but surely killing. I chanced upon this one on a tree that gave me hens almost ten years ago. 

So mark the spot - they will appear again.


Forage, Harvest, Feast - A Wild-Inspired Cuisine