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
COOKING FOR PICASSO


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
COOKING FOR PICASSO

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.











Monday, September 5, 2016

Cloud-shrouded sunrise, still beautiful

When my husband Ralph and I are at the beach, we make a point of getting up early to see the sunrise over the ocean. If we time it right, we’re rewarded with magnificent skyscapes. Even before the sun peeks over the horizon, the sky lights up with a blush of readiness. But that glow of anticipation is brief, soon replaced by blazing light from a fiery orb. Quickly - surprisingly quickly - nature’s powerball fills the sky. The sun rises with earnest intent. The sky brightens. A new day begins.




I never tire of watching the early morning sky. Looking up. Looking around. Listening to waves crash against the shore. Gulls crying. Birds flying. Light changing along with the clouds. Sunrise over the ocean is as special as it is ordinary, an everyday occurrence of ever-changing proportions. 


 

Ralph and I just returned from another early morning beach time. Although we arrived with several minutes to spare before the sun actually rose, the golden orb never appeared. Of course it was there, but a shroud of low-lying clouds kept it covered, hidden from sight.




Nonetheless, the sky was spectacular. Innumerable shades of beige, blue and gray reflected on wild waves splashing ashore. A storm was brewing and while hints of light slipped through slivers of pillowy fluff, the full force of sunlight failed to appear while we were there.

My husband, who grew up swimming in the cold water of Nauset Beach on Cape Cod, eagerly entered the pounding surf. At 82-degrees, the water at New Smyrna Beach is a welcome change from the chilly ocean dips of his youth.




While Ralph played in the pummeling waves, I remained securely ashore, my eyes focused on the surrounding sights. A snowy egret foraged for food. A pod of pelicans flew overhead. Gulls faced windward on a sargassum-dotted beach while short-legged sanderlings scurried by. As Ralph caught one wave after another, i watched clouds shift and the changing color of the sky.




As I walked along the shoreline, I realized how seldom I think of going to the beach during inclement weather. On rainy days, when storm clouds gather or when the sky is less than sunny, I tend to stay home or do errands in town. I don’t think of going to the beach, but maybe I should. The ocean is wild when the sky is heavy with impending weather. People are few. Waves are many. Even without blaring light, the sky provides an amazing show.




There are those who say that spending time at the ocean rejuvenates the spirit. For some it’s their ‘happy place,’ a touchstone to reality. To me, the beach is simply another wondrous world to explore. It’s a roaring lesson of power and patience. Timeless beauty. Undefeatable energy. Even when a sunrise hides behind a shroud of clouds, it’s a place worth being. 


 

Friday, September 2, 2016

Two short videos of shorebirds on a windy New Smyrna Beach morning

Early morning at the beach.  Strong wind.  Large waves.  Many birds. Few people.





A willet finds tiny morsels to eat along the shoreline at New Smyrna Beach in Florida as the waves roll in and sanderlings scurry by.




A pair of snowy egrets forage for food along the shoreline on a windy morning at New Smyrna Beach, Florida




Monday, August 29, 2016

Pineapples - easy to grow, yummy to eat

When I go to the produce department to pick out a pineapple, I look for one with the greenest leaves and at least some yellow on its rough outer skin. I also give it a sniff hoping to catch a whiff of sweetness. Following those three indicators - bright green leaves, yellowy skin, sweet scent - dramatically increases my chances of selecting a tasty fruit.

With homegrown pineapples, choosing a sweet, ready-to-eat fruit is simpler. There’s only one indicator - the color of its skin. When the entire pineapple turns yellow it’s ready to pick.


Homegrown pineapple with bright yellow skin


Using a knife, cut the yellow pineapple off close to the base of its stalk. Take it inside. Slice it open, cut it up and take a bite.


Delicious homegrown pineapple
 
The flavor and texture of this homegrown edible is so incredibly sweet, fragrant and delicious edible you might wonder if it can really be the same fruit as its store-bought counterpart? 

It is and it isn’t.

All pineapples are bromeliads, a type of air plant that requires minimal care, soil or water in order to produce fruit on a sturdy stalk growing out of the center of a swirl of sharp, stiff, sword-like leaves. 


Young pineapple growing resembles other types of bromeliads


In Hawaii, Puerto Rico and Costa Rica, where most commercial pineapples are grown, fruit intended for grocery bins is often sprayed with a plant growth regulator called Ethephon a week before harvest to induce yellowing. This is done because, unlike fruits that continue to ripen after picking, pineapples stop developing upon harvest. No commercially grown, sprayed and shipped pineapple will ever taste as sweet and flavorful as a homegrown fruit left to ripen on its own.

Fortunately for anyone with a desire to taste the difference between commercially grown and homegrown pineapples, this tropical treasure is one of the easiest fruits to grow. 


Easy and fun to grow in a container or in the ground


A pineapple plant takes up little space, can be grown in the ground or in a container and thrives on neglect. It can even be grown indoors in cold climates as long as it is placed in a sunny location. The main requirement needed to secure a sweet harvest is patience because it takes about 18 months for a pineapple to reach maturity.

A homegrown pineapple normally begins with the cut off crown of a store-bought fruit. 


A cut off crown placed directly into the ground will produce another pineapple in about 18 months


While many websites offer complicated instructions on pineapple propagation, the method I have used for years is not only effective but ridiculously easy. I slice off the leafy top along with about an inch of flesh and skin - the part normally thrown away - and stick it in the ground right away. I don’t place it in a bowl of water like some suggest or let it dry out for a few days before planting. I also don’t try to remove all flesh and plant only the leaves. The most important step is choosing the right spot for planting.

Pineapples like dry, sunny or partially shady locations. They do well in places where other bromeliads grow - beneath the base of trees or out in the open. However, it is important to make sure the selected location is not wet. Too much water will kill pineapple plants. The plant’s leaves and flowers, which fuse together to form the fruit, collect as much water as they need all on their own. They also don’t require much soil. When I’m planting a pineapple, I merely scratch the surface of the ground before inserting the cutoff crown into the dirt. Fancy soil mixtures aren’t necessary nor are fertilizers or fuss of any kind.
 

No need to dig a deep hole or add any special soil amendments.
Just place the cut off crown slightly beneath the dirt and leave it alone. 
 

Once planted, a pineapple is a forget-about-it edible that rarely needs attention except when harvest time approaches and competitors take note. People aren’t the only ones savoring the flavor of homegrown pineapples. 

Raccoons, squirrels and opossums also like to bite into the fruit’s juicy sweetness. I recently lost one of my almost ready to pick pineapples when some animal - I never did find out what kind - managed to sever the entire ripe pineapple from its stalk and take it away without leaving behind any trace of either the chewed up fruit or the thief’s identity.

Although I was disappointed that an animal stole away one of my homegrown goodies, I wasn’t devastated because, I knew I could grow more. Sure, it would take a while - a good year-and-a-half - to reap another harvest but that’s not important. Any fruit that requires such little effort to produce such an amazing contrast to its store-bought counterpart is worth waiting however long it takes.

Friday, August 26, 2016

30 seconds of breeze, bees & flowers

Bumble bees fly through a strong breeze to sip nectar from orange cosmos flowers in our porch garden.