The Fat of the Land

Month: May, 2013

Fragaria

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The genus Fragaria, that of the strawberry, first of the royal summer berries, alludes to attraction. Stemming from a Latin word for ‘fragrance,’ the Fragaria clan entice from a distance, both with the ink richness of their color and the sweet nectar that drifts from forest openings where a sprawling patch grows, from a warm afternoon in the garden or a bowl of ripe berries on the kitchen counter.

Wild strawberries ally with specific habitats: the woodland, meadow or coastline, and their fruits are small but flavorful—the best selections among them are still considered the culinary pinnacle of strawberry flavor. The strawberry as we know it, large and succulent, is an artifact of the garden. As is most cultivated fruit, garden strawberries are a hybrid resulting from a cross between wild species. In the case of the modern strawberry, two New World species, F. virginiana and F. chiloensis, brought back to Europe by explorers in the sixteen- and seventeen-hundreds sired the cross.

Previous to the modern hybrid’s introduction, wild strawberries of both the European and American continents had a long history of cultivation. European reverence for the strawberry likely extends back to the Romans, though it is not clear if they were ever grown on a scale larger than that of garden specimens. Strawberries appear in religious art following the Roman Empire’s fall, symbolizing purity, the blood of Christ, and, as in Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, the ephemeral nature of earthly pleasure.

It was the French and English of the High Middle Ages, whose interest in the strawberry became more acute. Extensive plantings of wild strawberries appeared in royal gardens of the time. References to horticultural techniques for increasing berry size and production surfaced as well, including recommendations for regular applications of manure to create soils with high fertility and the replacement of plants every three years in order to maintain only the most vigorous fruit producers in the garden, techniques that persist with contemporary strawberry production.

Of the two wild strawberry species crossed to make our modern cultivars, one (F. virginiana) is indigenous to the Eastern side of the North American continent, and was discovered by early American settlers. Known as the Scarlet berry, F. virginiana began appearing widely in European strawberry cultivation by the 1600’s.

The other (F. chiloensis) was brought to Europe in 1714 by a French spy returning from the Spanish occupied city of Concepcion, Chile. There, Amedee Francois Frezier, an engineer sent to record possible ways to breech the city’s fortress, became enamored with the indigenous strawberry, long cultivated by natives of the Chilean coast to produce berries of a size like Frezier had never seen, “big as a walnut, and sometimes as a Hen’s egg.”

Frezier managed to deliver five living specimens upon his return, an achievement that seems almost prophesized by his name—Frazier stemming from the French word for strawberry, fraise. His ancestor, Julius du Berry, was knighted in 916 for delivering a dish of ripe strawberries to a Cardinal the Emperor and French King Charles Simplex was wining and dining. The Cardinal was greatly impressed with the berries, and the Emperor with the political leverage Julius’ gift had bestowed, so much so that he knighted Julius with the surname Fraise (later changed to Frezier) and a coat of arms that bears, among other symbols, strawberry flowers.

When Frezier returned to France, he gifted all but one of his F. chiloensis plants, bringing his own to the city of Brest, a coastal town in Brittany, where the first precursor of the garden strawberry likely occurred. Within a couple decades, a new strawberry variety became commonly available at markets in this region. Known as Barbary strawberries, later selections were eventually identified by the French strawberry scientist, Antoine Duchesne, to be a cross between F. virginana and F. chiloensis.

Though led on a winding path across continents and oceans, the strawberries that appear in our western Oregon markets have, in some sense, come home. The Chilean berry brought to France is the same species as our own native coastal strawberry, a plant whose indigenous range extends along the Pacific coasts of both North and South America.

And that celebrated fragrance endures; strawberries continue to beckon us from their perch at the market or their nook in the garden, delighting us with transient pleasures. In our region, both wild and cultivated Fragaria still signify the coming of summer, the opening of a fragrant gate onto a land of plenty. Each year we take the bait and follow its intimation with glee.

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Weeds

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I am in the process of starting new garden beds, tilling and amending an overgrown half-acre patch. We dug the first beds by hand, spearing and hauling out the weeds as if from the thickest ocean imaginable. After five rows like that, we rented a tiller, which whipped the soil into a smooth fluff that is delightful to spread with the palm of my hand. Nothing resists and yields the way soil does, a coin whose two sides are stone and silk.

But tilling has other consequences. Thirteen-horse-powered tines made relatively quick work of loosening our soil, in the process tearing apart any plants growing in it, distributing their parts like confetti in a parade. Overall, this is good. Plant material terminated this way breaks down fairly quickly into organic matter, feeding the living creatures of the soil and improving its nutrient- and water-holding capacity. A few plants, however, are well adapted to this method of attack, and instead of perishing, they propagate.

Weeds are fascinating plants, so breathtakingly adapted to their niches. Annual weeds, those that live out an entire life cycle—from germination to seed-set to death—in one season, gain their upper hand by distributing numerous, quick-to-germinate seeds. Perennial weeds easily seize whole swaths of garden in their tight grip not only by setting seeds, but by growing deep roots, rhizomes, corms, bulbs or stems that easily snap apart and have the ability to regenerate into new plants. All weeds are tough, able to withstand much harsher growing conditions than the average garden cultivar.

Rhizome-spreading weeds are a Hydra with infinite heads, a witch whose spell is exhaustion and futility. So well distributed is their regenerative DNA that even a half-inch length of rhizome will sprout, establishing itself in irrigated or un-irrigated ground. Sprouted rhizomes are much more vigorous than a new seedling, setting shoots for photosynthesizing and roots for nutrient and water uptake within a week of being severed from their parent.

I’ve spent hours raking the rows that we tilled, trying to skim off as much of their mischief as I can, knowing all the while that they’ve won and are winning and will always win. Quackgrass, the antagonist of my garden beds, has been cursing cultivated land in colonized North America for hundreds of years. Its seeds likely brought unintentionally from its Mediterranean home in 17th Century alfalfa shipments, quackgrass has followed in our footsteps and now thrives in all but the most southern regions of our country.

I am tolerant of weeds. A garden delineated as crops and dirt seems somehow barren to me—where’s the commotion, the life? In nature, sterile soil in an open field is an anomaly, signaling a severe lack of nutrients, a recent fire, toxicity, a desert climate. Though clean soil has intrinsic appeal to our controlling nature, my alarm bells don’t usually go off when it starts to sprout with plants I didn’t put there, unless the ones I did are still seedlings themselves that could be quickly outcompeted by the stealthy weeds. Transplants with a few inches head start can tolerate quite a bit of pressure before needing my assistance.

Maybe I am a lazy gardener, but I prefer to operate with the notion that weeds are not all nuisance. Just like the vegetables and flowers I cultivate, they are miners of the soil, reaching deep and pulling up nutrients and minerals. Clearing them from the garden means removing those scavenged subsidies. Less aggressive annual weeds are the most innocuous of the bunch; in certain situations I see them as a cover crop—shading the soil of my row to conserve moisture, clinging to nourishment that would otherwise leach into the subsoil. As long as I sever them before they distribute excessive amounts of seed, they are more ally than enemy.

Because most weeds are specialists, their presence can enlighten the observant gardener to certain nuances of her soil’s character. The weed profile of your garden is the best indicator of its personality—certain weeds grow where soil stays moist longer or where it dries out quickly, where the clay is heavier or lighter, where the soil has been recently cultivated, where it is compacted.

Absolutism may be justifiable in certain plantings—the corporate entrance, the dazzling showcase garden, beds framing a suburban lawn—meant to highlight not only beauty, but prowess and control. Elsewhere, perhaps we shouldn’t bristle when the weeds creep in. We may do better to cultivate an understanding of their dispositions, find a place for their unruly wildness in our aesthetic, keep some of their ancient power in our favor.

Growing for Keeps

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We associate summer and autumn with garden preserving, that exhausting chase to pocket as much wealth as possible. Yet, spring is an equally valuable time to ponder the pantry, taking stock of the jars that are still around, what we liked, what we haven’t reached for in months. I tend to overload my shelves, making more jars of pickled peppers or berry jams than I can reasonably eat in one year, letting the inventory carry over and allowing myself space to try a new recipe without foregoing those I know I like.

As spring freshness enters our lives, it is good to let go of old baggage—last year’s dried herbs, frozen vegetables cocooned by ice crystals, garden seeds too old to germinate reliably. Give them to the compost pile; open a place for the next flush of whimsy and effort you already anticipate. Starting again reminds us that even in water-bath-sealed jars we cannot hold our ambitions for long; they will grow again outside the borders we have arbitrated.

In spring I look for new things—new herbs to grow that will spark culinary diversions, new varieties of my favorite vegetables, new crops entirely that spoke to my imagination from the seed catalog. Even though they are established, I make annual adjustments and add this or that to bare spots in the perennial borders, invigorating their character.

And though I adore sitting among a garden in full bloom, I love May evenings spent gazing into the verdant fire of a garden quickening. Persephone, goddess of the spring, who is bound to live a portion of each year in Hades, returns to the surface now, riding the life force of new shoots and unfolding leaves, shaking off the damp underworld for a spell in the fresh air.

Spring’s cult is movement, and we are never quite ready for it. Each year I sigh that there is not enough time for the work, but who am I to bridle Persephone’s entrance? Symbol of the waxing and waning of beginnings and endings, all movement satiates her, whether it completes a task or leaves many unfinished.

There is a wave of essences approaching. Each week it will expand and diversify until just being in the garden will feel like a walk through Eden, reaching your hand out to meet divinity each time. It is an impossible fortune, this abundance, which we seem to stumble upon as if by accident no matter how much effort we have made to get there. When I kneel by the basil to pick a handful of opulent fragrance, it still feels like a gift. I am not exchanging labor for food, but love for love. In the garden, both are free and freely given.

Our gardens grow with us, shape our days and our pantry as our pantry and our days shape them. What we keep is the momentum: lessons begetting experiments, receiving born again as giving, the familiar rising up as something new.

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