Monday, October 17, 2016

Yes, we have LOTS of bananas!

I thought about the idiom “A watched pot never boils” as I took yet another look at the two hands of bananas suspended by rope from the porch rafters. 

Lots of fat, green, unripe bananas hanging from the rafters

Much to my disappointment, the fat, green fruit were no riper this time than they had been the day before. Darn! I hoped at least a hint of yellow would appear.

The bananas are hanging in our porch because the plants on which they had been growing snapped in the recent storm. 

The banana plants that broke in the storm

Fortunately, none of the fruit was damaged when the banana trunks broke. After the rain died down, my husband, Ralph, and I went out to cut off the two hands. We brought them inside to ripen.

On the ground with all fingers intact

Ralph and I have been growing bananas at our Groveland property for a couple decades. Since we’ve been doing it for so long, one might assume we’re pretty good at producing a bountiful supply of America’s most popular fresh fruit. One would be wrong.

The fact that banana plants have had a place in our landscape for a long time merely means we’ve had more opportunities than most to make mistakes. Although we have experimented with different varieties and planted them in various locations, our ability to successfully produce reliable crops of fruit has been abysmal. Our most common failure has been in timing. Fruit often grows and looks promising but cold weather appears before the bananas are mature enough to ripen. 

Little frog hiding out in the bananas

Banana trees, which are aren’t really trees at all but are large perennial herbs in the same family as gingers, die back when temperatures drop below 40 degrees. Fruit remaining on a plant which has suffered cold damage will stop developing.

It takes about nine months for a banana plant to produce a bunch of bananas. Plants develop from a system of large underground rhizomes. Growing points called suckers sprout out of the rhizomes and poke through the ground. Under proper conditions, each sucker will develop into a full grown plant that can support a single crop of fruit called a hand of bananas. The size and number of bananas growing on a hand depends on factors such as soil nutrients, sun and wind exposure, availability of water, mulch, crowding and, of course, timing.

Banana flowers

Since each banana plant dies once it has produced a single hand of fruit, growers only have one shot every nine or so months to harvest a crop. Fortunately, the abundance of suckers surrounding the base of each mature plant provide multiple opportunities to try again if the first crop fails to mature in time to harvest.

But poor timing wasn’t the factor for the two hands of (almost) mature bananas now suspended from the porch rafters. Hurricane winds shortened their natural maturation, leaving us to complete the process in a more contrived setting.

And so I continue to check on them daily. If they’re like every other hand of bananas we’ve taken inside to ripen over the years, they will slowly begin to yellow and then — BAM! —every banana in the hands will be ready to eat at once. I counted over 30 fruit in one hand and even more in the other. 

The first sign of ripening!

The idiom says “A watched pot never boils.” But when it comes to hands of bananas, a more appropriate saying might be: “I’m going bananas.” Or at least I will be when the two hands finally mature and I am faced with more ripe fruit to do something with than we can possibly consume.

The same two hands six days later

Guess I better get out the dehydrator. Dried banana time should be here soon. 

Dehydrating time has arrived!

Monday, October 10, 2016

Be the message you want to receive

Election day is less than a month away and the country remains strongly divided. Some people are leaning left, others leaning right while votes from an entire contingent of undecideds remains up for grab. Assuming, that is, they cast ballots at all. 

It’s been a crazy presidential campaign. So much ugly rhetoric has been thrown about. Name calling. Verbal abuse. Lies. Bullying. Suggestive innuendos. Disrespectful, nasty remarks have been spewed so often that the good citizens of the United States have begun to take trash talk for granted. Same old, same old. Business as usual.

No! It’s not!

Regardless of what side of the political spectrum one’s beliefs veer, intentional cruelty is unacceptable. It’s not OK to be mean or belligerent. It’s not all right to purposely deceive or cheat others. It is especially despicable to gloat about it afterward.

What happened to goodness? What happened to dignity, respect and civility? Why have we allowed politicians to hijack our sense of decency?

While driving through downtown New Smyrna recently, I noticed a sign in a residential neighborhood that summed up my sentiments about not just the upcoming elections but about our society in general.

The sign, a typical campaign-sized placard with bold lettering on a white background, was positioned on the front porch of an older wood-frame house. It struck such a note when it caught my eye I had to drive around the block to see it again. On my second pass, I slowed down, pulled over onto the shoulder and took a picture.

“Make America Kind Again” the sign proclaimed.

I couldn’t agree more.

We are a nation of 325 million. Our skin color is black, white and almost every shade in between. We are old. We are young. Single, married and in relationships. Some of us are religious. Some of us are not. We are gay. We are heterosexual. We have children. We have pets. We live in cities, farms, small towns and remote countrysides. Some of us are working. Others are retired or unemployed. We are rich. We are poor. We are the vast middle class.

Yet, despite our differences, we have one thing in common. We are all Americans. 

We live in a country that cherishes freedom. But what kind of freedom are we cherishing these days? The freedom to be rude to each other? To be arrogant, boastful and disrespectful? To hate, fear and persecute those who are different from us? 

Most Americans today are only here because their own relatives were once outsiders struggling as if their lives depended upon it (because they often did) to be part of a country with such promise.

What’s the promise now? 

We are facing monumental problems that not only affect our nation but threaten the very planet on which we live. The U.S. has so much potential to do good in the world, but we’re not going to get there by being greedy and belligerent. We’re not going to get there by being brash, abrasive and insensitive to the feelings and needs of others.

Election day is less than a month away. We each have an opportunity to make a choice. For me, it’s an easy decision. I’m voting for kindness. “Make America Kind Again.’ 

Be the message you want to receive.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Age is just a number

October is my birthday month. When leaves traditionally turn scarlet, orange and gold, I turn the leaf on another year. My 65th...

Am I really that old?

The calendar says I am. So does Uncle Sam. Age 65 makes me an official Senior Citizen, old enough to receive Medicare. I can slip on a pair of ‘Silver Sneakers’ and go to the gym without paying a fee.

That is, if I liked going to a gym, which I don’t.

I like building muscle by doing the same things I’ve always done - going for long, meandering walks and quiet rows through still water. biking, stretching and working in the garden. 

I exercise by giving my husband frequent massages and practicing chin-ups just like I’ve been doing since fifth grade when my teacher, Mr. Robideaux, showed me how. 

Except in fifth grade I wore more clothes doing chin-ups

My aging bones are strengthened by working at a stand-up desk instead of a sit-down table. I bounce on a pair of inflatable balance balls as I surf the web and type my columns. When eating, I’m careful about the foods I put into my body and prioritize dining in a mindful, calm manner.

A typical lunch includes a plate full of real food, a good book, a cup of hibiscus tea and a few supplements just in case... 

Although five decades have passed since my childhood, In my mind I’m still a spunky kid exploring the world with wide-eyed wonder. The difference is that these day, my eyes are somewhat shielded by drooping eyelids and covered by a pair of perpetually smudged bifocals.

But smudgy lenses and sagging skin can’t stop me from exploring the world outside my window. Nor can they keep me from paying attention to the world within.

Over the last 65 years, I’ve seen and learned much.

During the last six-plus decades, tiny saplings no bigger than a finger have grown into trees too large to put my arms around. I’ve also grown. From towheaded child to pigtailed youth, I’ve turned into a brown-haired woman who became a parent and is now a grandparent of four with a headful of gray-streaked, shoulder-length locks. This personal manifestation of time’s passage is a concept as difficult to wrap my mind around as it is to physically embrace the trunk of a towering oak.

Ralph attempts to wrap his arms around a huge tree - not an oak but a cypress

Of course, over the years I’ve also seen forests cut down to meet the needs of expanding populations. Farmland has been bulldozed, fields paved over, water and air quality compromised and wildlife endangered all in the name of that all-powerful god, ‘Progress.’

During periods of drought, I’ve watched submerged shorelines emerge to support foliage and small trees. I’ve seen those same plants die during wet periods when water levels eventually returned to more normal levels.

This ebb and flow of land and water has occurred with enough frequency to strengthen my faith in nature as an equalizing force. Even so, it frightens me to think of mankind’s greedy shortsightedness and destructive tendencies. I believe in nature. I want it to win.

After 65 years of living on this earth, I still wake up each day excited about the future. I wonder what the day will bring. What surprises will unfold? There are sunrises and sunsets to look forward to, interesting cloud formations, raindrops and rainbows. There might be spiderwebs shimmering with dew and bumblebees gathering nectar from flowers.


It’s the small things that bring me pleasure. Hugs from my grandchildren. My husband’s kisses. A handwritten letter in the mail. Kind words in an online post.

I’m no longer a child. Heck, despite what my mind tells me, I’m not even a young twentysomething. What I am is a mature woman who has somehow managed to remain optimistic despite the mounting stream of social, environmental and political injustices that threaten to turn our world upside down.

I attempt to stay positive by balancing out every loud, upsetting and frightening news report I hear or disrespectful action I observe, with an equal measure of kindness and goodness.

When I was a youngster, turning 65 was beyond my comprehension. Despite what the calendar says, it still remains a foreign concept. I may be entering the age of Senior Citizen this month, but my mind remains steadfastly affixed to the doorway of youth. I like the view from that position gazing out on life’s everyday treasures.

It’s the little things that make me smile and keep discouragement at bay. 


Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Green heron fluffs out before flying off

While drifting down Mill River (Florence, MA) in a small inflatable boat, I stopped to watch a green heron on a log.

I hurried to take out my camera and photograph the heron before he flew away.

As I watched, the heron move back and forth as it listened and reacted to the sounds of surrounding birds. Feather fluffing begins around 0:45.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Home again after time away

It’s early morning and I’m sitting by the river next to my daughter Jenny’s house in western Massachusetts. Crows are cawing overhead. Chickadees are chattering from tree limbs, and two merganser ducks are just a few yards downstream trolling the water for a fresh fish breakfast.

The rock I’m perched upon is smooth and solid. It’s a pleasant place to sit and even though the area where my daughter and son-in-law have chosen to raise their family has no shortage of enticing activities, I’m completely content simply being here in their shady backyard absorbing the sounds and sights in their little slice of New England.

A green heron hunts for fish from a log in the river

That doesn’t mean I haven’t partaken of the local wares. Dozens of stores, farmer’s markets, farms and restaurants beckon me with their goods. A new butcher shop in Northampton sells nothing but locally raised, grass-fed meat. Restaurateurs cater to the dietary needs of vegans, vegetarians and locavore customers. Bluefish — a fish my husband Ralph and I adore but rarely find in Florida — is a mainstay of New England fish markets, and we always enjoy eating it whenever we’re in the area.

Ralph and I enjoy eating lunch outdoors on the upper deck at Jenny and Brett's airbnb:
Sunny Family Friendly Home

In Central Florida, most farmer’s markets are merely an excuse for middlemen to sell commercially grown produce to unsuspecting customers, but here in western Massachusetts, farmers markets are the real deal. Actual growers sell their own organically grown tomatoes, leafy greens and just about any other in-season vegetable one can imagine. In addition to produce, everything from homespun wool to shiitake mushrooms, maple syrup, fresh cheeses, flowers and fermented foods fill the stands at outdoor markets. Just seeing the abundance of goods fills me with joy.

Ralph and Jenny at the Tuesday afternoon farmer's market in downtown Northampton, MA

Although our visit is short — just one week — time away from our Florida home provides long-term perspective. It’s helpful every now and then to step aside from normal routines and experience something different — new views, new places, new faces to see.

A new perspective from the water

As I sit on the rock overlooking the river, I think back to all the years when New England was my home. Walking around Jenny’s neighborhood picking wildflowers growing along the roadside with my grandchildren transports me back to our Cape Cod days when I did the same thing with Jenny and her siblings when they were toddlers.

My bouquet of wildflowers gathered along roadsides in Jenny's neighborhood

As a brave tufted titmouse takes a peanut from my outstretched hand, I flashback 40 years to a time when I trained a sweet little chickadee to eat out of my hand, too. I was so young then and full of passion for all of life’s possibilities.

A little titmouse will land on your hand or on a faded sunflower

Despite bumps and bruises encountered along the way, I'm still inflamed with hope and passion. Whether sitting by a cold river in Massachusetts, a freshwater lake in Florida or on the shore of an Atlantic beach, the rush of water never fails to fill me with life’s endless possibilities.

I need to be by water, no matter whether it's an ocean, lake, river or stream

A few feet away from my rocky perch, a curious chipmunk pokes its head out of a bramble of sticks. As it tries to decide if I’m friend or foe, I ponder my own reaction to a location no longer my own. I once lived in Massachusetts but then moved away.

Do I miss it? The changing seasons. The Queen Anne’s lace. The shops, the markets, the abundance of like-minded people. I do miss them a little, but the thing I miss the most is being separated by so many miles from my daughter and her family.

A quiet morning with Maya, Ella, Jenny and Brett

Just as water flows constantly downstream, each of us follows a path of our own. For me, for now and for the foreseeable future, Florida is home. As much as I’ve enjoyed being away, I look forward to being back in my own enchanted world where bamboos bend and the rising mist beckons me to push off in my boat for an early morning row through mirror-like still water.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Beguiled by a stinky blooming

My husband Ralph bent down for a closer look at the large starfish-shaped blooms that had spread out of the flowerbed and sprawled across the driveway.

Stapelia gigantea sprawling across the driveway

"It's supposed to smell like rotten meat," I told him. "But I don't notice the odor. Do you?"

"Not really," Ralph replied as he quickly straightened up.

It was probably good that my cautious spouse didn't put his nose too close to the large five-point blooms of stapelia gigantea. Commonly known as starfish flower, Zulu giant or carrion plant, this member of the Asclepiadaceae family is not a species admired for its fragrance — unless you're a bottle fly.

Bottle flies — those green and blue-colored insects that hover around garbage and decaying matter — love the way stapelia gigantea smells because they think it's rotting meat. Many plants attract pollinators with sweet floral scents, but this thornless succulent does it differently. It draws in pollinators by emitting the scent of a decaying carcass. It's one of many tricks this macabre magician of the botanical world has up it flesh-colored floral sleeves.

A fly is easily fooled by the foul odor emitted by stapelia gigantea 

Flies attracted to stapelia's odorous aroma are further fooled when they land on the succulent's petals. The petals, which can be up to 10-inches across, have a leathery texture edged with a thatch of long, white, hair-like fibers that mimic the feel of a dead animal's body.

Long white hairs are just one of many botanic tricks stapelia uses to fool flies into acting as pollinators

To a fly, the faux aroma and fake feel of flesh indicate a good place to lay eggs with a plentiful supply of food to nourish future larvae. However, no amount of fakery will fuel the needs of larvae when they have hatched. The larvae will not survive, but the plant will.

As flies traipse across the petals, their bodies brush against the male and female parts of the plant, transporting and transferring pollen, which ensures the survival of more stapelia gigantea plants in the future.

I received my original stapelia gigantea in 2012 at a plant exchange. All I knew about the plant I'd adopted was that it was a succulent with an interesting shape. Its green, knobby, four-ridged stems were about six inches long and an inch around. There were seven stems in the original container and for several months, that's all there were. Until one day when I noticed five or six more young stems just beginning to grow.

By the time summer was ending, the new stems were longer and buds had begun to form on the sides of several stems. As the buds developed, they resembled balloons in the process of being inflated. Day by day, the ballooning buds increased in size and rotundness until each one eventually burst open revealing a stunning, starfish-shaped flower beautified by thin bands of maroon stripes across tan-colored petals.

The ballooning bud

I'd never seen a flower like it and was instantly entranced.

Although individual flowers don't last long, their large size and unusual coloring more than make up for their brief life. Plus, a well-established specimen in a flowerpot or planting bed simultaneously produces multiple blooms in various stages of development. That means for a few weeks during late summer through early fall, this leave-me-alone-and-I'm-happy plant rewards gardeners with a spectacular show of slightly stinky, fully fascinating floral tomfoolery.

Although my original plant came in a container, at some point I transferred it to the ground in a sunny-to-partially-sunny, dry location. 

It didn't take long for my original plant to outgrow a small container  

In the years since, it has sent up many new stems and spread out of the planting bed next to the garage and is currently sprawling across the side of the concrete driveway where my husband drives his van.

This has become a small point of contention between us.

"You really should cut it back," Ralph reminds me repeatedly.

He's right. I should and, although he hasn't noticed, I've begun to lob off a few stems here and there to share with friends. Starting new plants is easy. Simply slice or break off a stem and stick it in the ground. No fuss. No water. Just plop it into soil pressing down to be sure it stands securely upright. A fun, easy plant to grow.

I love plants that demand little yet respond robustly. Stapelia gigantea may not be the most fragrant flower in the garden — at least from a human's point of view — but it's one of the most beguiling.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Cooking for Picasso - a flavorful mix of love, art, history and intrigue

As much as I enjoy being outside exploring nature, there are times when I’d rather be inside instead, especially when I have a good book to read.

The most recent tale keeping me out of the summer heat is the 2016 debut stand-alone novel by Camille Aubray, “Cooking for Picasso.” I enjoy books that slip seamlessly between present and past periods as well as ones featuring strong female characters.

I especially enjoy reading about women who find certain societal norms unacceptable and defy them by questioning and rejecting those customs, despite the serious consequences their actions create. My interest is piqued by books that introduce me to unfamiliar facets of familiar people and which broaden my knowledge of subjects and places beyond the scope of my experience.

Aubray’s 387-page novel does all that and more.

Set predominantly in the French Riviera — a place I’ve never visited but find intriguing — the story bounces back and forth between contemporary times and the early 20th Century. 

Dining under an Aleppo tree that inspired the first chapter setting of

The two main characters are Celine, a freelance Hollywood makeup artist, and her grandmother Ondine, who acted as personal chef to the famed artist Picasso during a few brief but memorable months in 1936. During a visit with her parents, Celine’s mother Julie entrusts her daughter with a long-hidden handwritten cookbook penned by Grandmother Ondine during the months she prepared meals for Picasso.

Picasso - Hôtel Vaste Horizon, Mougins, France, 1937
Photographer: Lee Miller

After Celine’s father dies and her mother falls seriously ill, a situation arises that demands answers to her mother’s enigmatic stories and hinted family secrets. Celine leaves New York City and travels to the Cote d’Azur with her Aunt Matilda to take a cooking class that her mother had paid for but was too ill to take. 

A café in the South of France that resembles the "Café Paradis" in

There, in the same village where her grandmother once lived, worked and prepared food for the famed artist, Celine is drawn into a search into the past that proves to be far more vital to her future than she ever expected.

Aubray is an Edward F. Albee Foundation Fellowship winner who has written and produced for ABC News, PBS and A&E and is mentored by novelist Margaret Atwood.  Although "Cooking for Picasso" is her first stand-alone novel, she is the author of four books in the "Rather" series under the name, C.A. Belmond.

Aubray (on left) with her mentor, Margaret Atwood

Aubray writes in lyrical prose interspersed with relevant French phrases which, even though they were translated within the text, I enjoyed trying to figure out on my own. The characters she has created are likeable and quirky, the plot compelling and the story line, which twisted and turned in unexpected directions, never failed to hold my attention. Chapter after chapter, I found myself wondering what would happen next.

As mentioned in the book:
Pablo Picasso's "Woman wearing watch with a mirror" (1936)

Part mystery, part historical fiction and part biographical exposé with just the right dash of romance to add a hint of spice, “Cooking for Picasso” is like a delectable bouillabaisse of blended flavors and texture. It is one of those rare books you can’t stop reading but don’t want to end.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Hibiscus x 4

When we purchased a home in New Smyrna Beach in March 2015, we inherited four hibiscus plants in four different colors.  The smallest hibiscus produces a beautiful yellow flower with hints of orange on its petals and stigma. But, because it was growing in the shade of two other hibiscuses, it wasn't doing as well as it could.

Since Ralph and I both like the color of that flower very much, Ralph decided to help the yellow plant giving it more room to grow.  To do so he had to remove one of the hibiscuses growing next to it.

The one we chose to dig up was also beautiful with an unusual multi-colored bloom.  After potting it up, we brought it back to Groveland and Ralph has been nursing it along ever since. It has adjusted well to being removed from the place where it was growing.  It has even begun to flower.  As soon as we can figure out where to put it, Ralph will take it out of the nursery area and plant it back into the ground.

Another beauty waiting for a new home

In the months following the removal of the multi-colored hibiscus, the yellow hibiscus has taken off.  In addition to now having more sunlight, I'm sure its growth was helped by all the compost and mulch Ralph added to the soil as well as the extensive pruning he gave it so more of the plant's energy would go into new growth upward instead of branches and greenery down by the ground. 

About 8-feet away from the yellow one is an extremely tall red-flowering hibiscus.  This plant doesn't produce the largest nor the fanciest flowers but it is a prolific bloomer with dozens of bright and cheery and flower faces to catch the eye of the occasional hummingbird of pollinating insect.  

The final hibiscus adorning the landscape is a pink variety with yellow anthers and red stigma.  Its flower is broad and bold with a soft insistence.  It's hard to pick favorites, but if I had to, I might just pick the pink hibiscus as my favorite of the four.