The Fat of the Land

Category: Flower

Home Grown

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From woodlands to meadows to marshy banks and alpine perches, the lily family is well represented among the wildflowers of our temperate region. Members of the lily clan served as important food sources for tribes throughout the Pacific Northwest long before European settlement—from the starchy staple of camas root to medicinal wild onions—and later as a source of garden specimens sent back to mainland Europe in the early days of Western exploration.

Lily family species are one of our oldest foods—onion and garlic have been cultivated for over 7,000 years and provide a foundational flavor in nearly every cuisine. Lily flowers were featured in the ancient gardens of Crete, Iran and Egypt, holding a special place of honor (and associations with gods and goddesses) for the purity of their beauty and the power of their fragrance.

Fast-forward a few thousand years and you may be surprised to find that an important chapter in the advancement of ornamental lilies took place right here in Oregon. Lacking pharaohs or kings to extol their virtues, lilies of our era are subjects of the marketplace and their royalty is granted based on durability and profitability.

As a species, lily blooms tend to face downward, their petals peeling back to reveal enlarged pollen anthers to attract pollinators. Before the 20th Century, lilies were not a desirable bouquet flower because their drooping blooms created an odd contrast.

Long admired among garden aficionados, lilies before the early 1900’s were a finicky lot. Mostly wild-collected specimens, they were considered troublesome in the garden—prone to viral diseases and other hazards of existence outside their native habitat.

Jan de Graaff changed all that in 1941 at his Gresham nursery, Oregon Bulb Farms, when he made a lily cross that produced disease-resistant, upright orange blooms for the first time. The variety, which quickly reversed the reputation of lilies as horticulturally difficult and commercially undesireable, was named ‘Enchantment.’

Soon after, de Graaff converted his mixed bulb nursery exclusively to lily production, sending his lilies throughout the world to commercial flower growers and gardeners alike and remaining a hotbed of lily breeding for the next 40 years. The only shortcoming of de Graaff’s effort was that, in breeding for hardiness, flower orientation and color, he outbred the species’ celebrated fragrance.

The work of Leslie Woodriff, an eccentric but genius lily breeder living in Brookings, Oregon, corrected that absence. In his messy greenhouse, Woodriff created unconventional crosses and was well known in the flower industry for his outstanding varieties. Lacking business skills, assets, or much income, he worked away on his unkempt farm until a collaborative opportunity with an up and coming bulb farmer, Ted Kirsch, came his way. The two worked out a deal to transfer ownership of some of Woodriff’s breeding stock to Kirsch’s new farm in exchange for a set fee and full-time work.

The breeding stock that Kirsch bought and Woodriff tended at the new farm resulted in the discovery of a seedling that has become the world’s most famous, and profitable, lily. Called ‘Star Gazer,’ the lily stood out for its striking fragrance, bold coloration, and that elusive flower orientation, whose star-ward gaze inspired the variety’s name.

Though more acreage of Star Gazer is cultivated today than any other lily and its ubiquity is apparent in flower shops across the globe, neither Woodriff nor Kirsch ever made their rightful fortune from it. Woodriff was out of luck as he’d sold ownership of the stock just before discovering Star Gazer. Kirsch made some unfortunate patenting decisions that resulted in a significant financial loss to his company over time.

In the 1960’s and 70’s, Oregon Bulb Farms attracted and trained many of the next generation of American lily breeders, among them Judith Freeman, whose work with laboratory hybrids greatly expanded the diversity of hardy and delightful garden lilies. Her farm, The Lily Garden, still breeds and sells a wide range of exciting lilies just outside of Vancouver, Washington.

From our indigenous lilies to the innovative breeding work that Oregon was host to, our home ground has a long history with this species. And as you smell a Star Gazer in your market bouquet, admire beguiling hybrids in the garden, or come across a wild lily in bloom on your next hike, you will find their charm remains as apparent as it is abundant.

Identifying Elderflowers

Correctly identifying and processing elderflowers is important as some varieties of elderberry tree (Sambucus genus) are mildly toxic or simply lack a desirable flavor.

Elderflower cordial is traditionally made using the flowers of European elderberry (Sambucus nigra), though things start to get confusing quickly as there are numerous subspecies that appear in many regions across the globe, taking on names such as blue or black elderberry. Most of these subspecies will have flowers with a fragrance and flavor worthy of bringing into the kitchen. Red elderflowers (Sambucus racemosa) cause digestive discomfort for some and, more importantly, do not have the same desirable qualities of their cousin Sambucus nigra.

While the two species are easily identified when fruiting (one has black and sometimes blue-looking berries, the other, red berries), at that point no more flowers will remain on the tree. To identify them in the flowering stage, look at the shape of the flower cluster.

Red elderberry flowers are arranged in a panicle, or grape-like cluster of small blossoms:

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Blue and black elderberry flowers are arranged in an umbel, or a flat-topped cluster of small blossoms:

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The leaves, stems and unripe berries of both red and black elderberry species contain cyanide-inducing glycosides which can cause a toxic buildup of cyanide in the body. When using elderflowers, be sure to remove them from all but that smallest stem attachments to keep these toxins out of your food. I do this by holding the flower cluster upside-down over a bowl and snipping away.

Elderflowers are best when harvested in the morning, before the heat of the day has begun to volatize some of their aroma compounds. They don’t store well, as the flowers begin to shrivel in too much humidity (a closed bag in the frig) or if left on the counter. Try to use them within a few hours of harvest for the best flavor.

Follow this link for an excellent description of how to make elderflower cordial at home.

Nectar

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Synonymous with sweetness, fragrance and divine sustenance, nectar is a term borrowed from mythology. Stemming from a Greek word meaning “death-defeating,” nectar was the literal drink of the gods that, along with ambrosia (the food of immortality), granted eternal life. Appropriated in the 1600’s to imply a sweet substance, the word nectar has never fully shaken its mythical origins.

As flowers and their ethereal scents came about long before Mount Olympus, the concepts of nectar and ambrosia were surely influenced by the real thing, challenging human imagination to reach beyond their earthly limitations. The word nectar still elicits fondness and wonder, that a thing so small and insubstantial can enter the nose and mouth with such outsized charm. Nectar is sugar, but with complex scent and deepness that still hints at magic.

Pull it apart with the tweezers of analytics and you’ll find that nectar is one thing, pollen and aroma compounds another. Bees are searching for nectar (at base, a sugar solution expelled by plants) as they pass from flower to flower, collecting and spreading pollen on their hind legs as they go. Aroma is less consistent from species to species: sometimes absent, sometimes residing in the pollen or nectar, sometimes exuding from petals or other flower structures.

In biology, nectar is a reward—liquid energy exchanged for pollination or protection—a symbiotic arrangement that is one of nature’s most sophisticated. Flowers direct bees’ ambitions with a multifaceted marketing program that includes elaborate architecture, fragrance, pigmentation and “nectar maps” often drawn in wavelengths invisible to the human eye. Now that our species is involved, the dance has become even more complex, with humans manipulating bees and coming ever closer to annihilating them (through no fault of traditional beekeepers).

Though we are certainly not its primary directors, our involvement with honey production and collection has taught us a few things about nectar. Namely that, beyond its sugary sweetness, the flavor profile of nectar is as diverse as the plants from which it is harvested. From light and mild clover honey to aromatic citrus-blossom honey to the smoky dark flavor of buckwheat honey, nectar varietals offer a wide assortment of culinary possibilities.

Even without the nectar-extracting skill of honeybees, the sweet and fragrant flavors of certain flowers have found their way into our culinary traditions. I grew up sucking on the trumpet-shaped tubes of honeysuckle and columbine flowers. I’ve used edible flowers as a garnish for their punch of sweet (and sometimes spicy or bitter) flavors, layered aromatic blooms in sugar to absorb their fragrance, or sprinkled them in a steeping pot of tea.

A versatile nectar to harvest this time of year is that of the black or blue elderberry tree. Flowers from either tree may be used to make elderflower cordial, a simple syrup infused with the rich aromatics of elderflowers.

Elderflower cordial is a popular beverage base in northern Europe, where it is used to flavor sparkling water. I’ve added mine to cocktails, iced tea and even drizzled it over fresh strawberries for a refreshing dessert. Elderflowers may also be added whole to pancake, pastry or fritter batters, and lend a delicate richness to strawberry preserves. Be sure to correctly identify foraged elderflowers before using them, as some varieties are mildly toxic.

Bringing nectar into the kitchen requires a subtle hand. While some honeys are strong enough to hold their own in a barbeque sauce, fresh flowers, especially, have an ethereal flavor that hovers and easily flutters away among more powerful seasonings. Put in the right place, nectar, pollen and flower fragrance offer substance fit for the gods.

Winter Fragrance

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I come from a place where the most you can hope for from a winter garden is good architecture—intricate branch structure, conifer pillars, berries that hang until gobbled by birds, seed pods left like surrogate flowers as they slowly crumble in the snow and wind. You can imagine my surprise when, upon moving to Portland six Januarys ago to begin a horticulture degree, I found on the winter plant ID roster a number of flowering shrubs.

The idea was novel to me. It made my new home seem endlessly exotic: flowers in January. On our first plant walk, we were introduced to Dawn viburnum (Viburnum x. bodnantense ‘Dawn’), a deciduous shrub whose bright pink January blossoms erupt on bare, lichen- and moss-adorned branches. We could smell its sugary fragrance a few feet away, and up close the flowers were implausibly sweet—scent infiltrating the realm of flavor.

The school had a row of witch hazels (Hamamelis mollis), their ribbon-like petals bursting out in succession toward the end of the month; yellows and burgundies perched on bare branches like exuberance itself. Though lightly scented, their simple sweetness still enchanted me.

I was born in January and my birthday month has always held distinct beauty for me—its blowing snow and frosted branches never disappointed. But until I moved here, January had never sent me a bouquet, richly fragrant with simple, Spartan elegance.

That first month in Portland, I visited the Chinese garden and found a ten-foot shrub decorated in alabaster yellow blossoms with rusty blotches on the inner petals. Its homely flowers and messy, bare branches were not the lure that hooked and dragged me to it. From the next courtyard over, I could smell its fragrance: citrus, ylang-ylang and clove. A touch of heady jasmine softened by the slightest hint of rose; perfectly balanced and magnificent in the cold January air.

The plant, I later learned, is wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox), native to temperate China (as all of these species are), grown for its transporting fragrance, prized by gardeners in climates that match its home turf, from the Pacific Northwest and the Southest to Great Britain. It is a standby in traditional Chinese gardens.

Other noteworthy species in the fragrant winter garden include: Winter daphne (Daphne odora), a broadleaf evergreen shrub with tight clusters of pinkish-purple flowers and a scent that rivals wintersweet in its power and grace. Chinese paper bush (Edgeworthia chrysantha), a deciduous shrub with handsome, smooth branches, downturned clusters of yellow flowers at the branch tips, a thick jasmine scent. And sweetbox (Sarcococca species)—master of disguise—its tiny, powerfully fragrant flowers hidden beneath orderly evergreen leaves. If you have ever been out walking in January and caught a whiff of alluring fragrance but couldn’t find the orchid you believed it must be from, it was probably sweet box.

Why such lovely fragrance in winter? It seems a waste that these powerful scents should only be enjoyed in passing—no one lingers long in a winter garden—which is why they are often deftly placed near pathways and entrances. Just as we garden visitors and passersby are stopped in our tracks by such attractive scents, so too are pollinators.

Less active in the colder months, pollinators must be coaxed from their refuges with solid promises, not hints, that their efforts will be rewarded. Since these plants cannot afford showy blossoms with tender, vibrant petals that would shrivel in the cold, they opt for smaller, stouter blooms and bold scent that travels far, sending its pledge into the thin winter air.

Our native pollinators have different habits than those in the home ranges of these species. These plants are visitors, specimens for ornamental gardens, grown for the gardener’s pleasure, largely senseless to our own ecosystem. And though I had come to study horticulture through concurrent interests in native plant restoration and food growing, they were my unexpected first love in this new place and the subsequent gardens, traditions and skills it would offer me. Each January, their superfluous perfume reignites that affection.

How to Eat an Artichoke

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I have had a long enchantment with the artichoke, one that extends deep into my childhood. Both my parents adore them and bought them for us when they could, a delicacy our whole family relished. We spoke of their exquisiteness as we scraped off the soft underbellies of their bud scales with our teeth and tossed the fibrous shells into a communal bowl. We squealed with delight when we heard they were on the menu and requested them for our birthday dinners.

I grew up in Wisconsin, where artichokes can’t survive the winter, and didn’t know anyone else who ate them for dinner. My parents are Californians who came to the Midwest with a predisposition for this Mediterranean relic, and always served them in the same simple way: steamed, small bowls at each place setting with a mixture of melted butter and lemon juice for dipping.

What I’ve known about artichokes from the very beginning is that they force you to savor. The outer scales, tough and with little meat, create a yearning for more sweet, nutty artichoke flavor that the larger, middle scales deliver in tidy little bites. The thin, inner scales, so delicate you can eat them whole, don’t offer as much flavor, but create an illusion of sustenance. And just as you near the center—where that great, tender heart awaits—you encounter a fortress of stiff hairs, sticky with steam and threatening to coat the whole outside of your artichoke heart if you’re not careful.

At first, I would hand the mess over to one of my parents and request they do it for me, but as I got older, I began to enjoy the task of liberating that fragile flower base we call a heart from its hairy cap. And while I would never refuse a pealed and dressed artichoke heart, some part of its flavor is forever linked to the journey I must take to reach it.

Years later, working on a farm in western Oregon, I was spending the day weeding thistles, clumsily learning how to grasp and pull them without receiving a hundred synchronized stabbings, cursing their armored tenacity. We piled them separately from the compost, to avoid spreading their scourge more thoroughly into the fields, and kept them covered with a tarp to stop their already-formed seed heads from dispersing.

It was a hot day, and as I lifted the tarp to drop off my first load, I caught a whiff of artichoke loveliness tinged with the earthy sweetness of decomposition. I breathed deeply, felt myself covet the smell of butter and lemon juice to go along with it.

Thistles are the raucous cousins of the artichoke. If you let an artichoke mature into a flower, it resembles a giant thistle blossom, those pesky hairs atop the heart opening to electric purple. Though many varieties have been bred to lose the trait, some artichokes have spines protruding from the tip of each bud scale, making for more kitchen tedium to remove them before cooking.

In places where artichokes are grown on a commercial scale, such as California, seeds from the artichoke flowers disperse into outlying areas and revert back to an ancestral species, the wild cardoon (Cynara cardunculus). This spiny beast can grow up to five feet in diameter, rendering rangeland difficult to navigate and outcompeting more approachable forage.

Though the wild thistles whose genetics eventually yielded cultivated artichokes are a subgroup native only to the Mediterranean region, all thistles belong to the same plant family, Asteraceae, or the Sunflower Family. The thistles we unintentionally steamed under the tarp at the farm were likely also an edible variety, though one whose journey to edibility is considerably thornier and arguably less rewarding.

Artichoke flavor is dominated by a thick sweetness that seems to prevail over all other flavors on the plate. This is due to cynarine, a chemical compound present throughout the plant and in high concentration in the bud scales, whose name comes from the artichoke genus, Cynara. Cynarine has the curious ability to inhibit taste receptors on the tongue, causing everything else you imbibe thereafter to seem cloaked in honey.

How is it that this arsenal of a plant convinced us to put it in our mouths? And who would have guessed that its payoff would be as tender and sweet as ripe fruit? Standing over that pile of composting thistles smelling like a happy kitchen, I had my first inkling of how easily hard feelings can be softened and curiosity kindled for a plant I would have liked to eradicate a few moments earlier.

Perhaps the Cynara clan of thistles held a similar allure over ancient Mediterranean gardeners; hooked by edible whiffs, they found a way in. Or, perhaps, they were incited by the thorns themselves, saw them as a sign of something worthy hidden inside. With the first tastings of young leaves or tender stalks, they discovered cynarine’s compulsion, numbing the tongue of any memory but saccharine kindness.

The Ephemerals

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Quietly from the rich, soggy duff, trilliums rise. The forest floor is still sparse this time of year—young shoots so slight and new they do not yet push against each other. There is room for Claytonia to spread its candelabra form, offering humble blossoms on succulent green platters, for Anemone to blush, painted trout lily leaves to suggest patches of dappled summer shade, fringecup to build its petaline towers and showy Cardamine blooms to bow, faint and pink, at ferns uncoiling nearby.

Like an idea springing forth, a melody filling its season, in some way they have agreed on this arrangement, each moment conspiring with its species. The ephemerals appear from thin air and stay only a twinkling breath. Many emerge, bloom and vanish (leaves and all) within a couple of weeks, exploiting the time it takes neighboring flora to stretch out of winter. They represent one of the cleverest biological strategies, winning the right to reproduce through haste rather than muscle or cunning. And by doing so, they enchant.

We are busy creatures, spending our days barely aware of the passing minutes, sighing often that time has lost its heft, floats weightless as foam atop our ambitions and fears. Like a sentence relinquished of its punctuation, we ramble. But there on the forest floor, displaying their fleeting fragility, wildflowers speak. Time requires neither weight nor leisure to hold value. One afternoon among these transient beings may be all you will see of them until next year.

Since my first encounter, the ephemerals captured me. I love nothing more than an afternoon in a rich alpine meadow or rock garden lazing in the sun, hopping from plant to plant, field guide and camera in hand, to study. Being small and often close to the ground, they have an almost private beauty I must lean into, a reserved complexity that aspires no farther than a few inches. Looking up from a wildflower, the world seems so civilized, so clearly beautiful. In the garden I follow along.

As much as I lust after summer harvests or find solace in autumn color and crispness, spring arrives like a slow gong. I have always enjoyed waking more than falling asleep, so it is fitting that this season moves me. I can barely contain the muffled thrill of spring’s first buds—a tulip bulb crawling to the surface, the first green Narcissus fingers, Fritillaria’s observant crawl, the push of green onto a world grown tired of its resting.

Spring mornings I am eager to step outside, take stock of what has changed overnight. Sometimes I find the sweet-scented starflower has opened, others an electric blue gentian trumpet or pink shooting star. In a morning of spring weeding, the wild tulips might yawn themselves awake while I’m not looking. And suddenly, the whole vegetable patch will be covered in yellow kale and mustard blooms, burgundy-veined arugula petals, like suspended confetti. One comes as if to celebrate the other’s passing and each day is truly different from the next. It’s like a game to come looking, to stay awake to its subtlety.

And even though I coddle these plants, watering and feeding them, mulching and weeding out competitors, I know they would still be here if the garden went wild. Amid a tangle of weeds, the Ipomopsis and Camas know their way. The wild buckwheat and Alliums will stand the summer drought. Unlike many flowers in the garden, beefy visions of their feral ancestors, the ephemerals have not changed their ways in our company. They do not grow because of me.

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Speaking in Flowers

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It’s hard to ignore, this time of year, how loud the garden becomes. Clumps of leaves that started so slowly are tall as teenagers now: arching, trailing, encompassing their own lush and particular selves. And from their collective body, the once occasional jewel has burgeoned into a genuine treasury. Flowers fill the sunny spots with wide faces, illumine shady corners, ripple like silk across stones. It is their way, you see, of opening their mouths and asking.

This sort of beckoning is pure poetry. Though they are creatures with the ability to forge a meal from (what seems to us) thin air, plants cannot walk. Except by accident, they cannot hold a hand, draw a face near to kiss. So they turn to Shakespearian tactics, sending sonnets into orbit, transforming sunlight, minerals and nutrients into material loveliness. The intent is to allure, and though we are not the primary audience, we too have been hooked by their charms.

When it comes to pollination, flowers are honed instruments. Their shape suggests what sort of mouth their target pollinators have, their color, what sort of vision. The heady scents of gardenia and jasmine are meant to attract something more functional than our praise. Yet we breed them, grow them and give them in true acts of worship. Flowers are a symbolic currency of our culture, and in the case of many species, their numbers on this earth have increased because of it.

I have always loved flowers for their wild shapes, intoxicating scents, saturated colors. As a gardener, I have come to rely on them as moderators. A humble patch of flowers that attract beneficial insects has become a regular part of my vegetable garden. The sorts of flowers that can increase insect diversity in a garden aren’t the showstoppers, though. They are usually small, simple flowers designed for the body shapes and feeding styles of tiny flies, wasps, bugs and beetles. Carrot family flower types, such as fennel, dill and wild Queen Anne’s lace are wildly popular with the crowd we aim to attract, as is the sunflower family, including marigolds, zinnia, and calendula.

To see a garden ecology in balance is a splendid sight: buzzing and whirring with insects of all kinds, insignificant pest populations, birds swooping and singing. I was in a garden recently whose ornamental borders have been completely neglected for over a year. Weeds have filled in between the widely spaced shrubs and perennials and bloomed in continuous succession since early spring. A vegetable patch, the only tended part of the garden, was nearly free of pest damage. Brassica leaves usually beloved to aphids were nearly spotless, while ladybug larvae—great devourers of aphids—crawled on nearly every plant. Hundreds of equilibriums were at work here, visible only by their outcome: a vibrant and productive food garden. By attracting the right kind of visitors, that small prairie of weeds and its modest but functional blooms was the ambassador that invited such fortune in, creating an effect that azaleas alone are not capable of.

To our species, flowers offer another form of moderation. We use them as symbols of sympathy, love, congratulations. And sometimes they are nothing more than an expression of exuberance sitting on the table. I believe this is not an accidental association. Green leaves alone do not effect the change plants require to increase their genetic presence; thus, they transform the desire to exist into a flower. To this creative act we can relate. Flowers mirror our own desire to reach into the beyond, into the next, with purpose and grace. To give flowers is to give poetry, the works of visionary artists, arias.

(Originally published in the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market newsletter, The Grapevine, July 26, 2012)