Tuesday, January 31, 2012

don't leave january without pms

Among the many blogs I follow, there's one that often posts "A Year Ago on
[ blog name withheld due to cowardice and embarrassment ]." So far in January 2012, this title has appeared five times on my Google Reader list of things I might be expected to want to read. While admitting that I DID choose to subscribe, I find this title off-putting at best. When I click on it, there's nothing there but a link to the year-old posting -- sometimes along with additional links to postings from the same date in previous years. So I don't usually click back to "A Year Ago ..." even though I might learn something worthwhile from this blogger's warmed-over work.

Granted, I often refer to my own previous postings, but I always present a new context for the old material, and don't usually go back to an arbitrary date.* But now, knowing that saying "never" can be a mistake, I take you back to January 31, 2011, when I revealed my astonishment at the concept of a Color of the Year which could be officially designated by PMS (Pantone Matching System) number.

So it was that a couple of weeks ago I visited the Pantone website to learn that Tangerine Tango (PMS 17-1463) is 2012's Color of the Year, and that the fashion industry will "dance into the New Year with this vivacious and appealing reddish orange." Alas, I must sit this one out, for the reasons outlined in my blog posting of  February 3, 2011.

Here's Pantone's description of what I will be missing: “Sophisticated but at the same time dramatic and seductive, Tangerine Tango is an orange with a lot of depth to it,” said Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute®. “Reminiscent of the radiant shadings of a sunset, Tangerine Tango marries the vivaciousness and adrenaline rush of red with the friendliness and warmth of yellow, to form a high-visibility, magnetic hue that emanates heat and energy.” Well, I don't drink Red Bull either. Timed-release energy is magnetic enough for me, and looking at a colorful sunset rarely fails to provide that rush we all relish at close of day.

Unlike myself, the fashion industry takes Pantene's Color of the Year very seriously, which tells me why it's so hard to find anything in navy blue these days.

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*Recently I regretted not looking back at my posting of January 7, 2011. It was sad to miss National Bean Day two years in a row, but the special date is now enshrined in my Google Calendar as an annual event.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

cyathea mater epiphiticorum

It all started in early November, when someone brought cuttings of basket plant (Callisia fragrans) to share with the garden club. I took two, though I had no idea what I would do with them. They sat on a brick ledge by the front door for several days, unplanted and unwatered but not entirely unloved. Just when I was thinking it was time to pot them or toss them, I noticed that they had not withered Obviously they were taking moisture and nutrition from the air. Suspecting that they might be epiphytes, I ventured upon an experiment I'd been planning for years.

Our front garden is graced with the six-foot trunk of a dead Australian tree fern, Cyathea cooperi. I have steadfastly refused to remove it because I thought it would make a natural support for a vine. In fact, an opportunistic asparagus fern (not sprengeri but the more delicate-looking variety with the wicked thorns) clung to it for months until I declared war on asparagus ferns and removed all but the slow-growing old meyeri.

I tore strips from a raggedy brown bath towel and used them to tie the basket plant to the top of the defunct tree fern trunk. There they have flourished for almost three months with naught but an occasional spritzing from a spray bottle. But they were not alone. Later in November, a neighbor shared some  epidendrum cuttings. Two went into a pot, and two were wired onto the base of the tree fern trunk.

Meanwhile, several potted epiphyllums had been languishing in the back yard for several years. In spite of gross neglect, some of them have continued to produce huge blossoms every spring. I took the smallest one out of its pot, trimmed back its dead leaves, and separated the plant into two main stems. These I tied to the tree fern trunk just below the basket plant, along with the epidendra I had previously planted at the base.

A couple of days ago, I returned from a walk around the block, and the refurbished tree fern caught my eye as soon as I rounded the corner. Recent rains had refreshed the guest foliage, and, with the top starting to fluff out, it looked like a plant that was meant to grow that way. All it needed was a name, and so Cyathea mater epiphiticorum -- tree fern mother of epiphytes -- was duly christened.

Eat your heart out, Joyce Kilmer! A gard'ner-poet re-made a tree.

Monday, January 23, 2012

cholla awol

My front-yard bed of (mostly*) cactus and succulents is a conversation piece. Neighbors stop by to ask the names of plants or compliment a blossom. Last spring's long-lasting crown of yellow flowers on a small red barrel cactus (no more than 5 inches in diameter and 2 inches in height) was especially popular, and I have high hopes for two barrels that are even smaller.

Sometimes a passerby is especially knowledgeable about cacti and succulents, and this brings about a virtual garden club meeting. It was on one of these occasions that a charming young man offered me a start of cholla (the Spanish name is pronounced CHOY-yah). Cylindropuntia is the scientific name of this plant, native to Mexico and the southwestern U.S., known for its cylindrical stems and "papery epidermal sheaths on the spines." I was enthusiastically receptive to the new plant, which he delivered at least two months later. (In the interim, I realized, my new friend must have potted a cutting and waited for it to root.)

My tiny new cactus brings back memories of many visits to the huge natural stand of chollas at Joshua Tree National Park. This site is commonly called the 'Cholla Garden,' but I resist this designation since it implies a level of human intervention that does not occur in national parks. The aforementioned "papery epidermal sheaths" produce a rich glow and an extremely deceptive impression of softness when one views chollas from a distance -- which, of course, is the best way to view them since the spines are so sharp and so loosely connected with the stems that they seem to 'jump' through one's epidermis even if it's sheathed in heavy denim.

Late last fall, I mulched my cacti and succulents with a layer of shredded paper, mostly junk mail and preapproved credit card offers. The snowy effect was appropriate for holiday decor, but early in the new year I'd hidden it under a tasteful layer of brown leaves. Then I looked around for my beloved little cholla. I had a general idea of where I'd planted it. A barefoot walk-through, of course, would have revealed its location in no time. (Remember learning the term phyrric victory in junior high?)

Finally I recalled that I tend to surround tiny plants with a protective border of rocks. Furtively feeling for these through the leafy mulch, and knowing roughly how much room I'd have been likely to leave between the cholla and a colorful crassula, I was able to locate the plant and scrape back the surrounding mulch. It looks healthy, in spite of rainy-season moisture, and has an excellent chance of survival.

I predict that sometime next summer a charming young man will stop by and say, "Your cholla has done well to get through its first year." I'll thank him kindly and offer him a cutting of something else.
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*Gardenias, paper-white narcissi, sweet violets, and california poppies are notable exceptions, along with the lupine expected to return in spring. Nasturtiums are the tolerated weeds.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


Steve and I were driving north for Christmas visits, and the last half of our route lay through notoriously boring countryside. It turned out that Sharon, a dear friend and companion on many road trips over the years, was going the same direction at the same time, so I invited her to join us.

Sharon's birthday is a few days before Christmas, and I thought it would be fun to stop for a celebratory meal or snack along the way. A certain roadside restaurant-cum-gift shop with a fruit-tree theme -- very appropriate for California's central valley -- came to mind instantly. Steve and I had eaten there on a couple of homeward trips in recent years, but just in case they were out of business, I consulted Google. Voila! Melba's Peach was still a going concern in the little town of Filbert.* I didn't remember the town itself, but the user reviews left no room for doubt.

Naturally we had a wonderful visit with Sharon on our road trip. With close to thirty years of shared history, the three of us always find lots to talk about, but our conversation took a totally unexpected twist when I mentioned stopping in Filbert. It seems that Sharon's classic VW Beetle had broken down outside Filbert sometime in the late 60's or early 70's. She had less than $10 in her pocket at the time, and expected it to be enough for a trip home from San Francisco. Of course the car needed parts, and work that couldn't be done at a gas station on the new Interstate, so she was towed some distance into town. After a scary night barricaded in the mechanic's men's room, Sharon got herself a temp job as a typist in Filbert's City Hall, and stayed with the City Attorney and his family for the few days it took to fix her car. Now, heading north with us, she was ecstatic to think of returning to Filbert after all those years.

Indeed, Melba's Peach had been built behind the berm where Sharon had sat in her immobilized VW and made up her mind not to be defeated. Melba's gift shop manager told Steve that Filbert was 25 miles away, and our waiter told me that Filbert was 20 miles away. When I pointed out the discrepancy, he said, "Well, it's either 20 or 25 miles, depending on how fast you drive!"

Regardless of distance or speed, I wish we'd had time to visit downtown Filbert with Sharon that day. Maybe in spring, when fruit and nut trees are blooming
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*Not the real name of the restaurant or the town, of course.

Monday, January 16, 2012


In February 2010 I became aware of hyacinth beans (HB), officially Lablab purpureusan old-world member of the pea family, and in March of that year chronicled my travails in getting a single HB seed to germinate. Against all odds, that solitary plant has survived, prevailed, and been resurrected in the 'fring'* of January 2011. By the end of 2011, it had proved itself as a perennial, having spread along at least 15 feet of chain-link fence and reached the front-yard garden arch where I try to grow mandevilla and clematis. At one point it almost touched the roof if not the sky. A 'magic' bean indeed!

In late November 2011 I was embarrassed to find my neighbor trimming HB from her side of the fence, where it was encroaching on her bougainvillea. I joined in the pruning, and have established some limits though I enjoy seeing vines cover our side gate. Yesterday I looked carefully at the main stem / stalk / trunk, which has grown quite woody and must be at least three inches in diameter. As fring progresses into spring, I expect to do some proactive shaping. It would be sad to have to cut the whole thing down

Bushels of nitrogen-rich HB cuttings, including immature seeds and pods, have been added to the mulch around our freesias, hyacinth bulbs, and lavenders. This is harvesting of a sort, but it would be nice to cook and eat the beans. Unfortunately they (and the pods) are toxic unless prepared in a very labor intensive manner. Last summer I tried various prescribed methods, but the flavor didn't seem to justify the effort.

HB leaves may be cooked like spinach, but the cooking water must be discarded. How could a person eat cooked spinach without ingesting any of the cooking water? So I've resigned myself to eating an occasional HB flower. They taste like raw green beans and would be good to garnish a salad or top a fancy canape.

Though they have no fragrance, HB flowers look like perennial sweet peas (which, in our garden, they seem to BE!), but they bear up to 16 or 20 blossoms on an 8" stalk. The flowers are smaller and waxier than scarlet runner beans or the frilly blossoms of annual sweet peas. A seller on eBay offers seeds of white hyacinth beans Dolichos [sic] Lablab 'Alba' and claims that they are fragrant. Of course I'll take the plunge. If HB must be grown purely as ornamentals, they might as well smell good.

BTW in looking up my last year's HB postings I was sad to discover that I missed National Bean Day (January 6). Perhaps a nice pot of congressional bean soup will fill the breach.

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*the spring-like season that starts with Southern California's fall rains.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

it's a dilly

Two years ago today, I proudly cataloged our herb garden under the head of African Blue Basil. The French tarragon and silver thyme, alas, are no longer with us, but everything else is doing well. Large-leaf thyme, marjoram, comfrey, winter savory, curry plant, and borage have been successfully added to the mix. Epasote is questionable but frankly not that much in demand,

Generally I buy herbs in four-inch pots, set them out in sunny spots, water sparingly, and expect to start cutting in a couple of weeks. Seed is less of a sure thing, but I have coaxed cilantro, summer savory, and sweet basil to stand for a season and sometimes reseed themselves.

For some reason, though, dill has been my downfall. I must have planted at least ten pots of dill in the last three years alone, and scattered innumerable seeds. Garden books warn that dill will bolt to seed if not kept moist, while the plant man at the local farmer's market insists that dill -- especially its tender new crowns -- must be kept on the dry side.

My gardening role models have always done well with dill. I remember visiting Liz, our Riverside neighbor, sometime in the late 70's. She sent me home with heavenly homegrown tomatoes and a big handful of fresh dill. "Chop the dill on the tomatoes," she advised. "It's better than basil." Mother-in-law Alice had huge stands of naturalized dill in California and Idaho, and would put up lovely jars of "dilly beans." I have longed to replicate these treats, and to chop fresh dill lavishly onto fish.

So last week the 99-Cents Only store was offering two healthy-looking little pots of dill along with mountains of tired poinsettias, sickly mums, and root-bound kalanchoes. Of course I'm trying again!

The Sunset Edible Garden Book specifies that container-grown dill does best in a pot of at least 12" in depth. Of course it had never occurred to me to grow dill, or any other herb, in a pot, but I decided to take the plunge with half my new crop, though I was too stingy to give it more than 8" of soil (in a 3-gallon plastic nursery pot). The 'control' pot went into the ground. Both dills look pretty good so far, but I think the potted one is doing better. I plan to move it around till I find a spot where it seems especially happy, and then hope for ample reseeding.

Yesterday I sneered at the pots of dill being sold at the farmer's market. The Spanish tarragon looked tempting, but I'm trying to stay focused on my new dill crop and the two tired poinsettias that are grouped with my hopeful hollyhocks.

Monday, January 9, 2012

linneaus eleison

I always enjoy reading news during the first week of a new year: summaries of the past twelve months' activity, previews and prognostications for the next twelve, and the occasional notice that things will never be the same.

Thus a bolt from the blue on Thursday's New York Times editorial page. The New Universal Language of Plants describes two major milestones"as of January 1, diagnostic botanical descriptions may be written in Latin or English, and the electronic publication of new names is accepted." These new standards and procedures are expected to expedite naming the more than 2000 new species of plants (including fungi and algae) now being identified each year. Meanwhile, of course, human impact on the environment is measurably shortening our list of 200,000 named species.

As Tennyson's King Arthur so quotably says from the deck of his funeral barge: "The old order changeth, yielding place to new" (Morte D'Arthur, line 240). In this case, however, we're also talking about old and new ways of ordering*.

I'm  relieved to see that binomial nomenclature, the real heart and soul of the Linnean system, is alive and well. The first new vegetable species to be described in 2012, Solanum umtumais a spiny eggplant native to South Africa. It gets its name the old-fashioned way -- from its genus (Solanum) along with an epithet (umtuma) chosen from the Zulu language by identifying botanists M.S. Vorontsova and S. Knapp, who have boldly written it in "the cloud" of cyberspace.

Years ago I wrote a poem about "the true and graeco-latin names of all the plants," including a number of references to Roman Catholic liturgy in Latin. I had fun "ringing the changes" on preoccupation with botanical names as a kind of idolatry, and ended with the hybrid line "Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Linneaus eleison."

I think Linneaus' resonant tradition is showering mercy upon us in 2012, as new ways of thinking and doing build upon an infinitely expandable world of learning and enjoyment.

A Happy New Year indeed!

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* Oh, yes -- kingdom, phylum, class, etc. raise their heads and beg for more puns, but I am lashed to the mast and will ride out this storm.

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POSToccupations by Frances Talbott-White is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License