The Fat of the Land

Category: Wilderness

The Wild Garden

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It has taken me years to begin seeing difference in natural ecosystems—a bare ridge and a shaded forest are dissimilar enough, but one forest and another easily blur together. A horticulture degree and years of pouring over native plant ID books helped, but it was the intangibles that truly made the difference.

Looking is a slippery act: look too closely and you miss the web of connections, look too broadly and you ignore the enriching details. Look for one right way to look and you miss the boat entirely. And though I am still (and always) a student of looking, what has taught me, more than anything, how to observe the natural world is my own fumbling imitation of it. Hours of planting, weeding, watching, and loving my own cultivated spaces have taught me how to sit in a wild garden.

Anyone who has battled a weedy plot knows the power of ecosystem succession. As gardeners, we focus on curating a space of beauty, fascination and function. Meanwhile, the plants in our garden are engaged in a constant struggle for access to light, water and nutrients. We help by placing them in an auspicious site, weeding out competitors, feeding and watering them. Yet, even with our limbs and affections as allies, they sometimes fail.

The first time I entered an old-growth temperate rainforest and knew I was in an old-growth forest, I was awestruck. The gardener in me wanted to know how such fragile beauties lived in profusion there—trillium, orchids, lilies, and many others I couldn’t yet name—arranged in artful clusters on mossy stumps or as glorious trailside specimens, growing as any plant would in a weed-free utopia.

But old-growth forests, and other undisturbed ecosystems, are not utopias, nor are they static in their achievement. What impresses us in such a forest—its vaulted ceiling, open stillness, mossy softness and handsome plants—is balance, accomplished over hundreds of years of struggle similar in spirit to that which we deploy against our weedy garden beds. Such balance never stops to rest or admire itself, and it is its centered harmony, one it runs its bow back and forth across, which mesmerizes us so completely.

Forests that have been disturbed by logging, fire, landslide or other calamity grow back somewhat like our own gardens—thick and ferocious with life, specialists exploiting their particular skills, vying as individuals and as species to either capitalize on their moment in the limelight or eventually win long-term standing in that more open, tranquil place, where the may stretch into idyllic versions of themselves.

As gardeners, we are more disturbance than balance. We fancy ourselves balancers, concocting careful strategies to allow our gardeners to thrive, but each scratch of the soil is like pressing a reset button. Embrace it, for the struggle it brings is why we garden and how we earn any sense of accomplishment in our work.

Out on a rocky ledge, breathing the fresh mineral air, sitting in the white sunlight, I try to bring as little disturbance as possible. It is in such a place that my favorite type of garden grows. Alpine rock gardens, fragile and resolute, offer spectacular wildflower specimens and fabulous views to boot. The contrast of macro and micro is endlessly delightful to me—a neat foliage clump shooting out stems of brilliantly colored flowers can, with a quick shift of my gaze, give way to a long drink of conifer-covered mountains, rocky outcroppings, maybe a snowy peak.

June and July are the season for wild alpine gardens (higher elevation sites flower later than those at lower elevations, rewarding persistent hikers with many weeks of show-stopping blooms). What looks at first like a bare slope reveals itself to be a museum of highly adapted species; the alpine garden’s specimens, spread widely among cracks in rock faces and loose gravel, demand close looking and reward the careful observer with an eclectic diversity of shapes, textures and colors.

Rocky alpine gardens are not everyone’s ideal—most gardeners certainly prefer the fantastic blooms and foliage that dazzle us (and me) at nurseries and botanical gardens. Yet the sense of awe I feel in the alpine garden is as a student in the presence of a masterwork. Many alpine species are notoriously difficult (or impossible) to grow in cultivated gardens. Up on the ridge, they sit in effortless arrangement, embodying their breezy perfection in what seems like an impossible home.

Here, the wild garden teaches me to un-garden, to witness instead of act, to sink into the inimitable and shifting balance of wilderness left to its own devices.

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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.

Beauty and the Beast

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Wild foods are not for everyone. Their collection can be perilous—from the ruggedness of the landscapes where they grow to the ambiguities of accurate identification—and their flavors are often bold. Wild foods, even in romanticized print, sound wild, as if they belong to a more ancient version of ourselves, relics from leaner times. Herbal medicine maintains an appreciation for their complex chemistry, but we have otherwise written them off as a novelty food, if we consider them food at all.

Perhaps no single wild plant both satisfies and challenges the contemporary reputation of wild foods as much as stinging nettle (Urtica dioica). A weedy perennial found on every continent but Antarctica, nettles have long been collected for food, medicine, and fiber. Their use can be traced deep into human history—samples of nettle cloth have been found in Bronze Age excavations—and fragments of their extensive lore linger today. Nettle extracts are used in some commercial soaps and shampoos, and nettle tea is marketed as a popular natural remedy for spring allergies.

Go to pick a stinging nettle and it will remind you of its wildness. Covered with the botanical equivalent of hypodermic needles, nettles insert irritants under the skin, causing welts that can last for days. They prefer rich soils near streams, wetlands and moist woodland and meadows, with a wider range in regions with abundant rainfall.

In the kitchen, their sting is easily tamed. Boiling or steaming the leaves for a few minutes, letting them soak in cold water overnight, or laying them out to dry until brittle are simple techniques to nullify their irritants and transform nettles into a versatile ingredient. Nettles become bitter (and less nutritious) the longer they are cooked. Short blanching times (3-5 minutes) yield the tastiest greens, as tender as the finest spinach but with a more complex flavor profile: nutty and rich with a fresh, surprising sweetness not unlike a cucumber’s.

Nettle’s intense flavor goes a long way, making it an excellent component in creamy soups and sauces, including the popular nesto (nettle pesto). Its silky texture and richness give depth to starches like polenta, risotto, noodles and gnocchi. Nettles may stand in for all or part of the spinach in recipes such as spanakopita or Aloo. Dried leaves can be steeped for tea, or crumbled into powder and used as a seasoning.

We would all do well to incorporate nettles into our diet, as they are an unusually rich source of nutrients. Fresh leaves contain up to 20% protein (dried leaves up to 40%)—more than any other known leafy green—and as a source of essential amino acids, nettles are comparable to beans and chicken meat. A hundred grams of fresh nettle leaves (a generous ½-cup blanched) contains 100% of our daily vitamin-A requirements as well as 46% of our daily calcium, 20% of our daily fiber and 10% of our daily iron.

Water from soaking, steeping or blanching nettle leaves (used both internally and externally) is a traditional skin and hair treatment, purportedly soothing dry skin or strengthening and adding shine to your locks.

As wild foods go, nettles are an extraordinary package: an accessible flavor profile, an impressive catalog of medicinal applications, and a nutritional range and concentration not found in any other leafy vegetable. Their unwelcoming exterior gives way to a wealth of resources, not the least of which is their culinary prowess. A recent foraging expedition yielded a batch of leek and nettle sauce at my house (roasted leeks processed with blanched nettle leaves, some of their blanching water, oil, salt and pepper to make a smooth, bright green puree) that lent stunning visual contrast and botanic zest to a grilled filet of halibut.

As their popularity grows, nettles have become increasingly available to those less interested in the wilderness side of wild foods, popping up more and more at area restaurants, farmers markets and specialty groceries. Their window of availability is brief, however, and the time is now for fresh nettle leaves, whose harvests will wind down by mid-May in our area.

If food is medicine, nettles offer more than their weight in nutritional gold, flavors more beautiful than appearance suggests and a motto that matches the fickleness of spring: take caution, be bold, enjoy with abandon.

Wind

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In movement we find refreshment. Whether that movement is a soft breeze or a powerful gust, wind is the garden’s tonic: invisible energy that disperses pollen and seed, animates foliage and branches, transports scent, gives voice to the silent. Wind is the connector. And like a fiddle player pressing bow to strings, it sends the still garden into dance and laughter.

Wind moves without purpose other than to shift air from higher to lower pressure. On a global scale, wind materializes as air at the equator heats up and moves north or south to the cooler poles. With the earth’s rotation, this otherwise vertical flow of air is pulled laterally. Landforms create friction that slows wind speed at the earth’s surface. Bodies of water, temperature and topography help to shape the character and power of localized winds.

Being but one corporeal instrument of detection, we experience wind from where we work, often as an impish spirit, undoing a pile of gathered leaves, chilling exposed skin, sending a lock of hair straight into the eyes. Wind has its softer side, cooling a sweat-moistened brow or carrying the sweet scent of flowers from where they bloom to where we sit. Wind thrills as it intimidates, causing the tops of tall trees to sway with the sound of a waterfall. All in all, wind’s simple game of moving from here to there seems a companion as much as an elemental force.

Wind has a long and storied presence in folklore and mythology. So irresistible to personify, it has inspired a grand pantheon of gods and goddesses across the globe. Wind deities run the gamut between weather tricksters and vital life forces.

Vayu, the Hindu god of wind, conflates atmospheric air movement with individual breath. In a story about the deities of bodily functions competing, each impressed their influence on the body by leaving it (eyesight, hearing), but only one deity, Vayu, was powerful enough to destroy all the others with his departure. Much like the Chinese concept of qi, Vayu personifies all that connects the disparate parts of the body, of the soul and of the earth.

Perhaps the newest in that pantheon of personifications is a web-based map simply called earth. The recent work of programmer Cameron Beccario, earth incorporates real-time weather data into an animated image of global wind movement. The map loads as a view of the globe, and can be turned in any direction or zoomed into to see more specific locations.

The page is clean—hardly any print, no advertisements—which heightens its sense of mystery and awe. Wind speed is indicated by color, and air currents by delicate lines that draw themselves, flowing and swirling like a horse’s mane over oceans and continents. Certainly there are practical applications of such a program, but is seems to have been created without any of those in mind. This wind deity in map form makes the invisible visible, pulling back to watch wind play on its grandest scale, revealing the enthralling beauty of a thing that is so powerful and free it cannot even contain itself.

Like Vayu, Beccario’s map is a simplified and poetic representation that offers a scrap of insight to the greater mystery. Back in the garden, we gather other scraps: the wind chimes catch their tune, the spring bulbs nod, dried grasses tap each other in chattering applause. Nearby a low whistle, wind through conifer needles, speaks like a voice from some other world, moved accidentally from there to here.

Chanterelle

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This is a season with a penchant for things orange. As much as spring revels in cool hues of green, autumn sets fire to itself, preferring to send off the season of the sun by mimicking its daily celestial farewell. In autumn, flora exude all the concentrated warm tones of a sunset: hefty orbs of winter squash and pumpkins glowing amid their rotting foliage, Technicolor pigments seeping through deciduous tree leaves as chlorophyll production halts, apples like skittish suns that plunge into the next world at the slightest bump, persimmons hanging in stubborn devotion until January. And, for those who enter the forest in this boisterous season, there is the golden chanterelle.

In our part of the country, autumn’s warm tones always come wrapped in a blanket of dark winter green. Such is the setting of the Pacific golden chanterelle: a carpet of moss, fountains of sword fern and dwarf Oregon grape, clusters of freshly fallen Douglas fir and hemlock needles from the latest bout of wind and rain, air charged with the dim green light of sun reaching through cloud and canopy. In this quiet place, if you are lucky enough to find them, you will kneel before a forest deity and take alms.

A creature neither plant nor animal, mushrooms contain no chlorophyll and are composed of chitin, the same substance that forms the exoskeleton of insects. They have only limited (slowly creeping) mobility, and they both absorb their own nutrients and feed off the carbohydrates of another organism.

It is chitin that gives mushrooms their meaty texture when cooked. Chanterelle love, however, is an affair with aroma. Their flavor is ephemeral, lifts out of the pan in a cloud of savory perfume as you cook them. The compounds that make up chanterelle flavor are mostly soluble in fat and alcohol, so employing these ingredients helps to deepen their impression on our pallet.

Chanterelles are always wild—their growth depends on a symbiotic relationship with bacteria and tree roots that science has yet to reliably replicate. The bulk of the organism lives underground in a form known as the mycelium, a network of tiny fungal strands the width of a single cell. Mycelium form sheaths around the host tree’s roots, exchanging minerals and nutrients for carbohydrates. What we think of as a chanterelle is the fruitbody of chanterelle mycelium, a reproductive structure sent aboveground to disperse spores onto the highway of air currents.

For the recreational mushroom hunter, collecting chanterelles is relatively uncertain business. Though chanterelles reappear in the same site year after year, their numbers are easily influenced by spring and summer weather, and yields vary considerably from one season to the next. Factor in that they are a popular and easy mushroom to forage, and you may be driving 1-2 hours into the forest to eagerly stare at the undergrowth, finding, if anything, only the trimmed stems of the previous forager’s loot.

But not this year. This is the year of the chanterelle, a forest gold rush of sorts. Our unseasonably warm spring gave the mycelium a head start to grow farther and wider than usual, and multiple late summer rainfalls clinched the deal, creating the perfect conditions for young fruitbodies to grow into full size mushrooms. My first harvest was in early September: we strolled through the forest in t-shirts gathering perfectly clean chanterelles that covered the slope like a bed of constellations.

Wild mushrooms hold a powerful spell over those who collect or cook them. When I kneel before a chanterelle in the oxygen-rich forest air, I experience a clarity and delight I find in few other actions. I take them with the grace and acknowledgement of a gift.

And they are suspiciously so: unlike other fungi of the forest, chanterelles are exceptionally free of insect infestations and few, if any, other forest species seem to browse on them. They contain no poisons to dissuade us. Only time seems to diminish their quality as they wait, delicate and radiant, for the one creature they have so completely seduced. Perhaps it is simply accident that leaves them sitting, perfect and approachable, on the forest floor. The exquisite aroma of a chanterelle sautéing rises up as a soul sacrificed to the gods of oversight.

Vaccinium

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Blueberry bushes are one of those generous plants that lend superior charm to each season of the garden. In winter, their stems turn cranberry red as the temperature drops, accenting evergreen plantings with sparse but vibrant color. Their spring bloom occurs alongside leaf emergence, when clusters of bell-shaped flowers and bright green leaves seem the definition of exuberant freshness. Their prodigious summer fruits pull us into the garden for breakfast forays and evening snacking. In autumn, their foliage blazes in electric reds and oranges, offering some of the most impressive fall color available to maritime northwest gardens.

As a food, we adore them. We can spend an afternoon popping them into our mouths for their crunch, their juicy dark sweetness and hint of sour. Rub a blueberry on your sleeve and the epicuticular wax, known as the “bloom,” will give way to polished midnight. Heat them in a pan and this powerful pigment stains their yellowish flesh into a deep, silky sauce.

The pleasure of a backyard blueberry bush is a relatively recent phenomenon, having been successfully domesticated less than a century ago. A member of the genus Vaccinium, most garden blueberries are cultivars of the Northern highbush blueberry, a species indigenous to the eastern United States.

Wild patches of Vaccinium corymbosum were a popular July destination both before and after European contact, when locals would pick them for eating and preserving. In the early 1900’s, Elizabeth Coleman White, the daughter of a cranberry farmer in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, collaborated with botanist Frederick Coville to seek out and refine wild selections for commercial production.

White employed the help of experienced local pickers to locate desirable specimens, paying $2 a bush for plants with large berries and good flavor. Dozens of prospects were delivered and, with the help of Coville’s research on blueberry culture, the first cultivars were brought into production by 1916.

In Maine and eastern Canada, another species, Vaccinium angustifolium, the lowbush blueberry, was also domesticated, though propagation attempts were unsuccessful. Lowbush blueberries spread by rhizomes and do not easily transplant. Rather than propagate them in fields, growers learned to cultivate existing patches, encouraging their spread by removing competing plants and keeping them productive through field burning or mowing every few years. Lowbush blueberries are marketed as wild blueberries since they are not technically planted, though they are intensively managed and machine harvested.

Edible berry producing Vaccinium species are also found in the western U.S., most notably the huckleberry, an enigmatic force that captivates those who know it. Huckleberry species populate nearly every type of ecosystem in the Pacific Northwest, from coastal rainforests to subalpine meadows. All are edible and have nutritional value, some are bland or dry and best eaten cooked, others make a tangy (but miniscule) snack. Two species, V. membranaceum and V. deliciosum incite delirium and crazed obsession.

I knew the obsession long before I tasted a fresh huckleberry. As we drove from Wisconsin to Oregon with all of our belongings squeezed into a rented minivan, we noticed cafes and gift shops dedicated to them, exclamations of “huckleberry shakes!” dotting the interstate through Montana and Idaho. We smothered our pancakes with huckleberry syrup and drove on.

Since huckleberries don’t exist where I grew up, I’d never seen one. I had no particular reason to seek out a picture, no reason to go picking them. Living in eastern Oregon for a couple of years, their reputation eventually surfaced in our consciousness as we heard talk of people hoarding ice cream buckets full in the freezer. We saw the fire in their eyes when they spoke of them, and began to get curious.

Driving into the mountains one particularly scorching August day, we rolled our windows down to let in the cool forest air as we slowly gained elevation. After a few minutes, we both detected a fragrance we’d never noticed before: caramel sweetness tinged with a rich liqueur that beckoned us to scan the slopes for its source. We didn’t see anything blooming, but as the scent grew stronger, our eyes narrowed in on an abundance of reddish-blue berries dangling from the shrubby undergrowth. Could it be? We finished our ascent to the campground and saw the same shrubs filling the spaces between sites, folks crouched amongst them, dropping berries into large containers.

My first taste of a huckleberry, perched on the forest floor surrounded by its opulent scent, was transformative. Nothing has caught me so off guard as that unassuming little fruit: explosive, precise and extraordinary, tasting like the dream of itself. For a moment, picking and eating, I felt like I had somehow arrived on Mt. Olympus itself, that I was sitting in the land of the gods, where everything is just a little grander than its counterpart on earth, sneaking a taste of their favorite fruit.

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.

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.

The Ephemerals

trout lily

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.

wild tulip

pasque flower

gentian

shooting star