SIMPLY LIVING Sherry Boas(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel March 25, 2007) Lovely loquats. My trees are covered with fruit. Throughout the region, this year's loquat harvest is especially bountiful. If you have never tasted a loquat, now would be a good time to bite into the tasty fruit also known as a Japanese apricot or Japanese plum. Ubiquitous in Central Florida, these evergreen ornamentals must have been quite in vogue during the latter part of the 20th century because homes built during that time often included at least one loquat tree in the landscape. Favored for their compact size -- they seldom grow taller than 25 feet -- loquats are also appreciated for their shapely stature. The trunk is fairly short with wide spreading branches that form a broad canopy. A loquat tree adds beauty, shade and edible delights to any yard. It also adds fragrance and color. The large, dark green leathery leaves contrast attractively with the lightly scented white flowers that form into pale orange fruit shortly after February ends. Like most newcomers to the Sunshine State, I knew nothing about loquats when I settled into my first Florida home in the 1980s. Kumquat? Loquat? What's the difference? Quite a lot, as it turns out. Loquats are in the Rosaceae family, the same as apples, pears, peaches and nectarines. Kumquats are a citrus fruit -- think of them as the small, tart cousins to the more popular sweet orange. Although different in many ways, loquats and kumquats do share certain similarities other than a name that rhymes. Both are relatively little orange-colored oval fruits whose merits are relatively unknown by most Americans. I first discovered loquats in a neighbor's yard shortly after moving to Florida. Being a forager by nature, curious about any edibles growing in my area, it didn't take long to sample the fruit on my neighbor's tree. I was hooked after the first bite. Slightly smaller than a regular apricot, and containing two to four smooth brown seeds, a loquat's white to yellow flesh is soft and semi-sweet. I like to eat them fresh off the tree, popped one after another into my mouth. The seeds are easily dislodged -- much as one would spit out a cherry pit -- and just about as much fun to flick away with your fingers or mouth. Once the pips are released, you can enjoy the remaining fruit, skin and all. Because loquat flesh discolors shortly after being picked, you won't find them on most grocery shelves. But commercial growers have found many other ways to market their product. Loquat fruit can be canned, made into wine or turned into a soothing syrup or cough drop. According to Chinese medicine, loquat syrup soothes the throat and acts as a cough suppressant. Some people make jam, jellies or pies out of loquats. One year I baked a loquat pie. The pie was a success, but after that one attempt, I gave up creating future culinary concoctions. The result was simply not worth the effort. De-pitting one loquat, not to mention the quantity needed for a single pie, is time-consuming and messy. Better, I decided, to continue plucking the fruit from the tree and enjoying the mild flavor of these early spring fruits without unnecessary amendments. The other day while driving alongside a local bike trail, I saw a family park their bikes next to a loquat tree covered with fruit. The father reached up to pull down a branch so the child could break off a handful of fruit to sample. I was delighted to see people actually stop what they were doing to enjoy a taste of nature. How rare it is these days for most of us to eat anything that is not prepackaged, canned or frozen. The fresh fruits we do eat are usually so picture-perfect, it's as if they came off a production line instead of an actual tree. This time of year, with loquats so plentiful, is the perfect time to discover -- or rediscover for those who have already tried them -- how delicious the real thing can be. Step outside. Pick a loquat. Savor the taste of what nature has to offer.
Sherry Boas(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel March 11, 2007) Embarrassing things happen to me at libraries.Once I absent-mindedly returned my DVDs to the library rather than to Blockbuster. Lisa, an aide at my local branch, thoughtfully corrected my gaffe. She dropped the movie off at the video store on her way home from work."Lots of people do that," she told me later when I confessed my error. "But don't worry, we got a good laugh out of it."While I might be amiss at choosing the correct item to put in the appropriate return slot, I'm a whiz at providing amusement for the library staff. One time I stopped at the same branch to return a couple of books and borrow others. When it was time to leave, I stepped up to the checkout counter where Wayne, another library aide, was awaiting me."What do the police say when they pull you over?" Wayne asked as I approached the counter."Huh?" I muttered."When the police pull you over," he probed patiently, "they ask to see your drivers license and your what?"An amused grin inched across Wayne's face. On my own face was a blank stare that reflected my cluelessness. Raising his left hand, Wayne waved the official document in front of my eyes. Realization struck like an anvil."Agh!" I groaned, staring at my car registration."I know," he said, no longer trying to hide the cheap laughs my blunder afforded. "You left it in the book you returned."He was right. I did leave it. By mistake, of course. I put my registration in the book temporarily, intending to put it away properly when I got into the car. But I got busy and forgot.After that, I tried being extra careful, more attentive and less preoccupied. Still, I made silly mistakes. Once I dropped off a bunch of books only to realize that one of the books might have been borrowed from a library in a different county.Most libraries in Central Florida have reciprocal borrowing programs. For no fee, residents of one county can borrow from libraries in adjacent counties. Because I adore libraries and travel extensively, I have a wallet containing library cards from four counties.I have to be diligent keeping track of the titles I check out because books must go back to the right county. I also have my scattered moments and the books can get mixed up.That's what I thought happened a few months ago. After dropping off the reading material at my local branch, I headed home only to realize I may have left one wrong book. From the car, I called the library on my cell phone. I asked the aide to see if the book was there. She couldn't find it. I insisted it must be somewhere in the library, so she checked again. Still nothing."Please look again," I begged, but still no book.That's because I hadn't dropped off the wrong book after all; I only thought I had. It was at home on the night table where I had left it.That's why, before entering the library the other day, I paused to clear my mind and focus. I really didn't want another embarrassing encounter."Hi, Wayne. Hi, Lisa," I said.After exchanging small talk, I searched for a good read. About 15 minutes later, several novels and an audio book in hand, I was ready to check out."What's the limit?" Wayne asked, holding up the card I had handed him."What'd you say?" I asked, unsure I had heard correctly."Your card," he repeated. "What's its limit? Ten thousand dollars? More?"In Wayne's hand, just out of reach, was my MasterCard, the same color, size and shape as my library card.All my cards -- library, charge cards, gift cards -- live in my pocketbook in a single compartment. It's easy to pick up the wrong one by mistake.I've handed the grocery clerk my library card before. Why not "pay" for my books with my credit card?Sighing audibly, I admitted defeat, "And this time I was trying so hard not to do anything stupid when I came in.""But if you did that," Wayne said turning to Lisa for confirmation, "what would we do for fun on Thursday nights?"Lisa smiled and nodded, as Wayne and I exchanged cards.It may be unrealistic, but I look forward to the day when I can venture out in public without doing embarrassing things. Some people go to libraries for peace and quiet, others for study or knowledge. I suppose my mission -- at least there -- is to entertain others. We all follow paths in life. Someone has to play the clown.
The cedar waxwings have arrived. I saw them this morning, sitting patiently in the still leafless sycamore tree.
There must have been at least 50 birds, their gray plumage barely noticeable against the backdrop of an overcast morning. These featherweight bandits have timed their arrival -- as they do every year -- about a week before the mulberries are ready to pick.
Our family loves birds, but we also love mulberries. Therein lies the conflict.
We planted about a dozen mulberry trees shortly after moving to our property 15 years ago. The trees, once small, fruitless twigs, have grown in height, girth and productivity.
They now stand about 35 feet tall with almost as broad a canopy. Their long supple branches, laden with deliciously sweet fruit, bend toward the ground.
Mulberries are one of the first trees to bear fruit in the spring. Deciduous and prolific, these leafy wonders grow rapidly and are easy to maintain. They require no spraying or regular fertilizing and -- except for the cedar waxwings -- are relatively pest-free.
Although the mulberries we grow are a special white variety with extra-sweet fruit, the common mulberry is reddish-black. No matter their color, mulberries are always soft and slightly sticky when ripe. Kids like that. The small berries, about an inch long, squish easily, leaving a bright and colorful stain on anything they touch -- fingers, mouths, clothing, the soles of shoes.
Most parents don't find that trait appealing.
Once a popular landscape plant prized for its stately form and ability to attract birds as well as feed people, mulberries fell out of fashion among the suburban set. Years ago, when our family lived on Cape Cod, we watched as one mulberry tree after another was cut down.
"They're messy trees," homeowners repeatedly told us when asked why they were chopping down such elegant and edible additions to the landscape.
They're right. Mulberries are messy, but they're also tasty. While large quantities of dropped fruit surround the base of most trees, plenty of berries remain on the branches, attracting birds, feeding people and providing 9-year-olds with an abundant supply of fruity finger-paint March through May.
You can't buy mulberries at a grocery store. The only place to get these edible delights is to pick someone's tree or grow your own. That's what Ralph and I did when we moved to Florida.
We just didn't realize we'd be sharing so much of our bounty with the birds.
Cedar waxwings are social critters, traveling in flocks that descend en masse upon food sources. With their crested crowns and black-banded eyes, waxwings have an elegant, natty appearance. Picture a female cardinal crossed with a tufted titmouse and imagine it wearing a Zorro-like mask.
While the migrating flocks have a passion for red cedar berries -- hence their name -- they are not fussy eaters. Waxwings are just as happy to dine on blueberries as they are chokecherries. They like privet berries, holly berries, blackberries or the mulberries we were just about to pick.
They also eat insects, applying their gluttonous appetite to invertebrates such as weevils, carpenter ants and flies.
Sharing a few berries wouldn't be a problem. But when waxwings discover a food source, they don't drop by for a polite nibble; they employ the descend-and-devour technique.
They've even developed a special feeding method to ensure that no edible morsel is overlooked. It's the avian equivalent of a buffet line. Dozens of birds will land on one branch and proceed to pass a berry down the line from one bird to the next until each bird gets something to eat.
Much to farmers' horror, these voracious eaters can wipe out an entire crop in hours.
That's what happened to our mulberries about four years ago. It was the year after a winged scout must have entered our address in the waxwing register of fly-by-and-dine spots.
They came. They landed. They consumed.
Before long, all the berries were gone. Since then, we've tried one unsuccessful technique after another to discourage their feasting. People don't intimidate waxwings, so shooing them away is a waste of time. Blasting loud music doesn't scare them, nor does peppering branches with fake owl statues or shiny items.
The best solution so far has been to net an entire tree. When properly done, netting works but has a horrible side effect -- some birds inevitably get tangled in the net and die. No matter how many berries they eat, I refuse to kill birds to ensure a harvest.
This year, as I watch yet another contingency of flying mouths perching in the sycamore, I can't help but wonder how these 1.13-ounce bundles of feather and bone manage to know just when to arrive at our property. Their timing is uncanny, their appetite ravenous and their beauty exquisite.
Even if I don't reap more than a handful of mulberries this year, my harvest will be bountiful -- my yard has become a bird haven, and that alone is worth savoring
SIMPLY LIVING By Sherry Boas
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel March 4, 2007)
When it comes to gardening, I'm lazy. I want my yard to be abuzz with birds, butterflies and pretty flowers, but I don't want to spend hours making it happen. So, I've devised a plan: I let others work for me. Not people -- birds.
Birds are my two-for-one ticket to a beautiful garden. Here's how it works: I place bird feeders in sunny spots, spread a couple of bags of compost or black cow manure on the ground beneath, then fill the food hoppers with a mixture rich in sunflower seeds. Cardinals, wrens, sparrows, goldfinches, blue jays, doves, redwing blackbirds and tufted titmice flock to my yard to feast at personalized seed smorgasbords. As they dine, I watch, enjoying the show as one feathered creature after another takes turns on the feeder.
Did you know that doves, those supposed symbols of love and peace, are mean little critters? Anytime another bird -- even another dove -- has the audacity to land where a dove is already dining, a territorial battle ensues. The dove moves quickly into fight mode -- feathers ruffle and wings spread. Sometimes the two birds even engage in beak-to-beak combat, a nasty bit of bird interaction that occasionally results in feathers fluttering to the ground. The newcomer usually loses these dining-right battles and flaps off to a nearby branch until the first dove is done eating.
I watch these avian antics with great amusement, my inexpensive bird feeders providing priceless pleasure. I don't even mind when these contests of will cause seeds to fall to the ground because I know that each dropped seed is a potential plant. Rain comes down, the seeds sprout and -- without any effort on my part -- I get a birdseed garden.
Sunflowers, with their bright and perky blooms, pop up quickly in the enriched soil. Kernels of corn, safflower, millet and a sorghum grain called milo also take root. Before long, the circle of ground beneath the feeder is chock-full of blossoms and greenery.
If I look out my kitchen window right now, I can see 16 sunflowers in various stages of development, and I didn't plant any of them. Though not as tall as their more cultivated cousins, my volunteer plants are just as full of cheerful beauty. They stand straight, each bright yellow face pointed optimistically toward the sun.
Growing a birdseed garden has even changed my attitude toward squirrels, those furry-tailed seed stealers that are the bane of all bird lovers.
For years I tried -- unsuccessfully -- to outwit them. The fancy feeders I bought proclaiming to be squirrel-proof were indeed not. I doused the birdseed with cayenne pepper because it purportedly repelled squirrels. It didn't. I even set up separate squirrel-feeding stations. Squirrels came -- no matter what I did -- and ate the birds' feed, making quite the mess.
Squirrels are such wasteful gluttons. Seeds go flying as they land on feeders, and more seeds scatter when they leap off.
Seeing so much squandered bird food on the ground upset me. Not anymore. Now when a 2-pound mass of gray fur lands on my feeder, I think of him as just another helper sowing seeds in my garden. I know that some of those seeds will land in the soft soil underneath the feeder and start to sprout. More seeds on the ground means more potential blooms in my no-work garden.
Birdseed gardens are not the only plants I grow. Dozens of blooming beauties thrive in my yard, despite my lack of attention to them. Although I enjoy all the plants in all my garden beds, there is something special about the flowers sown by the squirrels and birds.
Maybe it's the symmetry of it all that appeals to me -- I feed the birds and they feed me with endless hours of entertainment and botanical bounty. I may be a lazy gardener, but I'm also content.
SIMPLY LIVING By Sherry Boas(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel February 25, 2007) In the world of dried fruits, slices of dehydrated citrus are not as popular as dried apricots, figs, prunes, and, of course, raisins, which are simply dried grapes. But few people have ever eaten the dried version of the one fruit that grows abundantly in Florida -- oranges. That's too bad, because dried oranges are delicious. They are extraordinarily sweet with just a hint of tartness to tease the taste buds. In our family, my son Timmy is responsible for most of the dried oranges we consume. He is the one who picks red navels from local groves, spends time peeling the skins, slicing the juicy fruit into round pieces and layering them on our dehydrator. When the dehydrator racks -- all eight of them -- are covered with orange circles, the machine gets plugged in on our porch, where air can circulate freely as the oranges dry. A fan and heating element in the dehydrator moves warm air through the stacked trays, causing the water in the fruit to evaporate slowly. It takes about 24 hours for the once-plump fruit to evolve into a chewy condensed version of the original. The whole process of preparing oranges for drying is not difficult, but it is messy. It's also messy during cleanup time, when the dehydrator trays need to be washed off. After first trying the sink and a scrub pad and then the dishwasher, my husband found the best cleanup method is to soak the trays overnight in a large bin. Come morning, they can be easily sprayed clean with a hose. But all that effort is forgotten with the first bite of this delicious fruit. If you've lived in Florida long enough to remember when citrus groves instead of subdivisions covered the countryside, then you can imagine the fragrance each bite of dried orange evokes. Bite into a piece of dried citrus and close your eyes: It's almost as if row upon row of Minneola tangelos, Page oranges and red navel trees are growing outside your back door covered with heady white flowers. The entire experience is more than a taste sensation; it's a memory trigger for bygone days. The other day, Timmy handed me a tray filled with freshly dried oranges and, I'm embarrassed to admit, I ate them all. In one sitting. My excuse -- if you can call it that -- is that they were the first dried oranges of the season, and my instincts took over. When he put that tray in my hand, all thoughts of propriety vanished. It was out of my control. Since that day, Timmy has produced more dried fruit, and I have learned to exercise (a little) better self-control. According to Victor Marino, founder of BellaViva Orchards in Denair, Calif., dried citrus is more than tasty; it's good for us. "Just 30 grams, which equals about three slices, provide 120 percent of USRDA [United States Recommended Daily Allowances] Vitamin C and 25 percent of dietary fiber with only 100 calories," said Marino, whose company added dried oranges to its online catalog, bellaviva.com, two years ago. The skin is responsible for the high Vitamin C content in BellaViva dried oranges. "Much of the fruit's nutritive value is found in the skin, so we don't peel our oranges before drying them," Marino said. At BellaViva, it takes 81/2 pounds of fresh oranges to make 1 pound of dried fruit. BellaViva is one of a few companies producing dried citrus for edible purposes. It is far more common to find pieces of dehydrated oranges in potpourri and craft projects than on the dinner table. So how does someone go about sampling this yummy food? There are few options other than ordering them online or buying a dehydrator and doing the work yourself. If you choose the homemade variety, be forewarned: In all the years our family has been enjoying these aromatic snacks -- despite Timmy's wholehearted effort to pick, peel, slice and dry dozens of oranges -- our hoard of dried fruit almost always disappears within days. But maybe that's OK. Sometimes the best things in life aren't always saved for later but are devoured with strong enough gusto to trigger future memories.