Sunday, March 30, 2008

Broccoli's yellow flowers work well in bouquets

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel March 30, 2008)

My daughter, who lives a couple of towns away, popped in to visit the other day. I knew she was coming, but even if I hadn't, I would have known she'd been here. When I walked into the kitchen, a freshly picked bouquet of flowers caught my eye. That's Amber's calling card, a physical expression of her personality and priorities.

It's interesting to watch your children grow up and display some of the same traits as adults that they had as children. Amber has always been a picker. When she was a toddler, I kept a large box filled with broken crayons just for her to play with. Though she drew with them, too, that wasn't their main purpose. What Amber liked best was to meticulously pick away at each crayon's paper wrapper. If I needed a break, I knew I could get it by placing the crayon box in front of my daughter. While Amber contentedly denuded a rainbow of colors, I could prepare a meal, talk on the phone or just sit and rest without interruption.

Outside, she displayed the same kind of single-minded intensity. Whether directed toward the search for four-leaf clovers (she found many) or the careful construction of dandelion crowns and daisy chains, her interactions with nature always resulted in personalized creations.

There was a period during her 'tweens when special attention was given to the gathering and weaving of plant fibers. By then, we'd moved from Cape Cod to Florida and Amber had discovered how easily palmetto fronds and cattail leaves could be woven into place mats, coasters and hats. A few days ago, I uncovered one of those coasters in the back of a kitchen drawer. Although at least 18 years old, the square mat of dried reed was just as beautiful and functional as when it was woven together by Amber's small but nimble 10-year-old hands. Rather than place it back in the drawer, I kept the coaster out on the counter.

Daisy chains, four-leaf clovers and woven fibers were passing fancies of Amber's youth, but bouquets have never grown out of favor. From childhood to adulthood, my daughter's affinity for all things floral has led her to seek out the unusual as well as typical for flower arrangements. The pretty posy she picked the other day is a perfect example. It included an assortment of wildflowers, weeds and vegetables gone to seed.

If you've ever grown broccoli, you've probably noticed how unpicked florets turn into yellow flower heads before developing seedpods. Skip a few days during prime growth time and a whole row of garden goodness will burst into a spray of golden blooms. While too late for the dinner plate, these past-prime veggies are not yet ready for the compost pile. Broccoli flower heads make fine additions to informal flower arrangements. That's what Amber did. She incorporated the yellow blooms into a gathering of wildflowers that included light purple fleabane, orange lantana and the fragrant blue blossoms of an unidentified thin-stemmed wildflower that pops up on fertile areas every spring. When put together, this unusual assortment forms a perfect blend of softness, shape, scent and color.

Leave it to Amber to add broccoli blooms to a bouquet. I've come to expect beautiful garlands from my artistically creative daughter, but this time she outdid herself. Not only did her selections form an attractive arrangement, but this particular grouping also has lasted much longer than most. Close to a week later, all the flowers still look freshly picked.

No matter how long they last, a vase on a windowsill filled with cut flowers adds more to a room than fragrance and color. It's an invitation to relax and appreciate what bountiful gifts nature provides.

Like Amber, I enjoy strolling around the property snipping flowers and forming arrangements. It's a soothing process, peaceful and calming. But as my daughter recently proved, it also can be an opportunity to rethink old perspectives and learn new lessons. At first glance, an overlooked head of broccoli seems like a thing of waste, an opportunity passed by. But in Amber's eye, it was an object of beauty -- another item to round out an arrangement.

Lucky me to have such an excellent teacher.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

March beauties measure time in color trio of 'yesterday-today-and-tomorrow' brunfelsia plant

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel March 23, 2008)

My brunfelsia plant is in full splendor. Better known as "yesterday-today-and-tomorrow" -- isn't that an enchanting name? -- brunfelsia is an unusual, decorative and, sadly, underused addition to the landscape. It is also one of the most appropriately nicknamed plants out there.

The pansy-like blooms on this evergreen bush emerge purple but don't stay that color for long. In a day or two, they change from deep purple to soft lavender to their final phase, bright white. With flowers opening constantly, the result is a cheery three-tone display of color -- yesterday, today and tomorrow -- set against a leafy green backdrop.

I first encountered brunfelsia several years ago during a visit to Smith Nursery in Mascotte. This two-generation, family-run business on the western edge of Lake County is a fun place to visit any time but especially during early spring when yesterday-today-and-tomorrow is covered with blooms. The nursery surrounds the residence of founder Albert "Smithy" Smith and his wife, Margie, who long ago planted several garden areas where well-established brunfelsia bushes still thrive. It was in one of those gardens that a huge purple-to-white-studded plant first caught my eye. About 10 feet tall, the brunfelsia at Smith's Nursery is one of those once-you-see-it-you-must-have-it plants. That's why I bought mine and, according to Smith's daughter, Jenni Ball, I was neither the first nor the last customer to be bewitched by the eye-catching beauty of the mid-sized shrub.

"Many people buy brunfelsia after they see the ones we have growing here, especially if they come in March when the plant is in full bloom," Ball said.

While a few other nurseries stock brunfelsia, most don't, and I have no idea why not. It's a fast-growing plant with few pest problems that propagates easily from tip cuttings, seed or pup divisions. Native to Brazil, brunfelsia flourishes in Florida's warm climate, especially when planted in rich soil in slightly sunny or dappled locations. As if being a low-maintenance plant with three different color blossoms were not enough to make this an all-time winner, yesterday-today-and-tomorrow also smells lovely -- yet another advantage of these little-known beauties.

When I stroll around our property, plants like brunfelsia act as leafy reminders of people I've met or places I've visited. Not far from my yesterday-today-and-tomorrow bush is a Dutchman's pipe vine. Although it covers a lattice arbor, the vine started from a tiny snip clipped from an expansive stand in South Florida.

Another vine that triggers memories is the honeysuckle clinging tenaciously to the clay wall across from my office. Whenever I look at those butterscotch-colored climbers, I'm reminded of Cape Cod, not because they came from there, but because when I lived on the Cape, honeysuckle grew ubiquitously along many undeveloped stretches of road.

I expect that has changed in the past 25 years as people have claimed and tamed most of the available wild land. But no amount of development can keep me from remembering how fragrant the air used to be as I pedaled my old Peugot bicycle from Skaket Beach to Rock Harbor.

The yesterday-today-and-tomorrow plant doesn't bloom continually. In a few weeks, its blossoming period will have passed. Fortunately, memories are not restricted by such time limitations. In our mental inventory of past events, yesterdays, todays and dreams of tomorrow meld together in seamless symmetry. Fading though they do from one day to the next, the images we carry in our minds provide a muted catalog to page through whenever we want or feel the need for remembrances.

Brunfelsia is blooming in my garden, and I delight in its splendor not just today but tomorrow and for all the yesterdays gone by. Its purple, lavender and white flowers will remain as sweet reminders of my March garden long after the last blossom has faded.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Someday . . . a recumbent bike for me

Simply Living

X-country cyclist Lucinda Chandler, aka Pink Panther.

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel March 16, 2008)

On a recent Saturday morning, I was heading home along State Road 50 when I noticed a large gathering of recumbent bicyclists assembled at County Line Station, one of several parking areas and amenity outposts spaced along the 19-mile West Orange Trail bike trail.

I've always been fascinated by recumbent bikes. Many years ago, a friend had a bright yellow basic three-wheeled model. One ride was all it took to hook me on these comfortable and sensibly designed "armchair" cycles. Rather than sitting up on a small hard seat and bending over the handlebars of a traditional bike, recumbent riders propel themselves forward from a relaxed lounge position. As the body reclines in stress-less comfort -- no wrist strain or sore bottom from these bikes -- the legs stretch out to pedal away the miles.

Since I've always harbored a secret fantasy of someday owning a recumbent, the sight of so many in one spot was too tempting to ignore.

"What the heck," I thought, mentally revising my schedule. "I have time for a short detour."

I turned off the four-lane and headed back to the trail park. What I found when I got there were dozens of people preparing to set off on the fourth annual Catrike Rally.

Although familiar with recumbents in general, I have very little knowledge of individual brands. Turns out that not only is Catrike, a product of Big Cat HPV, a locally manufactured three-wheel type of recumbent bicycle, but the Winter Garden-based company is also the largest manufacturer of recumbent trikes in the world. The March 1 rally was a chance for Catrike owners from around the country to meet and share their passion for these extraordinary machines.

After asking around and talking to several riders, a helpful park employee introduced me to Big Cat founder Paulo Camasmie, the man behind the Catrike design. Camasmie, a mechanical engineer and Brazilian native, moved to the United States in 2000. His dream was to create a three-wheeled recumbent that would combine comfort with speed, stability and elegance. The U.S. market was ripe for new ideas, and Camasmie's company grew rapidly. From meager beginnings working out of a small garage, Big Cat now produces more than 100 Catrikes each month in its west Orange factory.

But Catrikes, like most high-tech multispeed recumbents, are pricey. Who buys these grown-up tricycles that start at $1,750? All sorts of people do.

If the assemblage at the Catrike rally was any indication, you don't have to be young and in shape to pedal off into the sunset. People of many different sizes, shapes and ages traveled to Orange County for the rally.

One rider drew much attention. Cameras were flashing left and right as Lucinda Chandler posed for pictures. A mother of seven and a cancer survivor, Chandler was the first person to ride a Catrike across the United States. During 58 days in 2007, Chandler pedaled her bright pink Catrike, aptly nicknamed 'Pink Panther,' on a one-woman trip from California to Florida.

"I brought along all sorts of spare parts, including two extra wheels," said Chandler, a resident of Martha's Vineyard who now leads Catrike guided tours. "But I didn't need to use any. The trike performed wonderfully with no breakdowns along the way."

Seeing all the riders so comfortably settled in their brightly colored lounge chairs with wheels was inspiring, and talking to Chandler only added further fuel to my fervor to someday be a recumbent owner myself.

But not today.

Living where I do at the end of a long unpaved road, I wouldn't be able to ride my trike around the property. I'd have to transport it elsewhere, and that's more work and planning than I want to do. Maybe when the clay roads nearby get paved -- as someday they inevitably will -- owning a pedal pusher that costs more than the used truck we recently bought will make more sense.

I'll consider it a lesson in patience. I've lived with my secret fantasy and fascination with all things recumbent for more than 20 years. In the big picture, what's wrong with nurturing a dream for a few years longer?

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Coyotes chase but cannot catch a rabbit

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando SentinelMarch 9, 2008)

Encounters with wild animals are always exciting, especially if the critters being watched don't realize they're being observed. That's what happened the other day when I watched two coyotes chase a rabbit.

I was sitting at the table in the kitchen when I happened to glance out the window toward the lake. Ralph was talking to me -- I have no idea what about -- because my attention was drawn to a tawny blur dashing along the path along the water's edge. I got up -- Ralph was still talking -- grabbed the binoculars and went out to the porch.

There it was again. Definitely some sort of large animal.

My first thought was, "Maybe it's the bobcat." The last time I saw a bobcat on the property was several weeks ago by the compost pile. Ever since, I've been anticipating its return.

But no, this animal's stride was decidedly un-catlike.

"It's probably just a big dog," I muttered to myself feeling slightly embarrassed to have gotten so excited by something as ordinary as Lassie-gone-astray.

But just as I was about to return to the kitchen, I saw it again. Another movement -- rather doglike, but not exactly. Too big for a fox.

"My gosh!" a light flashed on in my mind. "It's a coyote! And what's it doing? Chasing a rabbit!"

"Ralph! Come quick!" I shouted. "There's a coyote across the lake chasing a rabbit!"

I was so glad he was there to confirm my sighting. On so many occasions, I've been the only one around when a wild animal appears. Although my family seems to believe my excited reports, I often wonder if there's a layer of suppressed suspicion in their nodding responses.

"Wow," they might say following one of my breathy accounts when what they're really thinking is, "Sure, Sherry, you think you saw a (fill in the blank: deer, wild pig, fox, etc.). It was probably just a dog."

Well, not this time. This time I had a witness to not one but two coyotes attempting to run down one panicky but agile little rabbit.

Ralph and I stood together in the porch before moving out to the front lawn for a better view. We watched as the pair of predators sniffed the ground, doubled back and gave chase to their prey. Although it was two against one, small and nimble reigned supreme. The rabbit managed to elude its hunters by slipping into a dense tangle of bamboo.

The whole episode lasted less than 15 minutes, but it was as thrilling a spectacle as any I've encountered. The only other times I've seen coyotes nearby have been while driving, and three of those four times, the animals were dead. Twice I saw animals that had been hit by cars, and one coyote was shot. I know it had been shot because I got out of my car to observe it up close. While my knowledge of weapons is practically nonexistent, there's no mistaking a bullet hole through the head.

I was disturbed for days after seeing the murdered animal and tried to understand why someone would kill it. Perhaps they were worried the coyote would attack their livestock -- it lay slain on the outside edge of a fence enclosing goats and horses.

Or maybe they felt threatened for their personal safety. If that were the case, they acted under false assumptions. While coyotes that travel in packs may take down a cow or goat, a solitary hunter is more likely to prey upon rodents, birds, small animals or carrion than a calf or goat. Then again, the coyote I saw could just as easily have been killed for sport -- something many people feel they have an inherent right to do.

Whatever the reason, a dead female animal was the end result. Hungry young cubs waiting for a parent's return might also have perished because of one bullet through their mother's head.

The other day as Ralph and I watched the two coyotes try unsuccessfully to capture a cottontail, I was reminded how difficult the life of a wild animal is. The coyotes spent so much energy on a meal that got away. If they were dogs, they would be fed out of a can and be considered man's best friend, but as wild animals, they must fend for themselves. They're on their own to not only find food, provide shelter and raise their young but also to avoid dangerous situations that put them in contact with people.

It isn't every day you get to see nature at work. My previous sightings of the dead and live coyotes moved me emotionally, but this recent spotting elicited a response beyond all expectations. I can only hope that as development continues to reduce wild areas, more and more animals will find refuge in places like our property where bullets will never be fired and wildlife encounters are moments to treasure instead of events to fear.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

The loquat tree is an under-appreciated addition to many Florida landscapes

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel March 2, 2008)

The long dirt driveway that leads to our home is lined with loquat trees. The loquat is an edible fruit tree with large leathery evergreen leaves. The fruit ripens from late February through the end of March. They are mildly sweet and even though they are also know as Japanese plums, we think they taste a little bit like apricots, a fruit my husband loves.

Our family discovered loquats shortly after moving to Florida and ever since, we've made a seasonal ritual out of picking and eating this under-appreciated fruit. Our enjoyment of these early-season edibles is partly why we chose to line our driveway with loquat trees. I also expected them to form a leafy entry tunnel to our house.

Unfortunately, that never happened.

Although the trees have been in the ground for 16 years, they are irregularly shaped and vary widely in size, productivity and taste of the fruit. None of the trees grew big or broad enough to form the leafy tunnel I'd envisioned, and although the fruit of some is sugary sweet, fruit from other trees is fairly bland.

Much of their failure is our own fault.

Ralph and I might have been young and energetic when we first bought our property, but we weren't particularly knowledgeable about proper planting techniques. We knew enough to grow loquat seeds into handsome saplings but not enough to plant the baby trees in enriched soil.

Like much of Central Florida, our land is mainly sand, but thanks to a peat mining operation here before our ownership, the ground is spotted with patches of rich peat. It is also dotted with just as many not-so-rich underground veins of red clay and kaolin, a type of very dense white clay.

Too inexperienced at the time to know the difference, we planted the trees in whatever soil was beneath our shovels -- sand, clay and peat alike. Not surprisingly, the trees in the peat patches grew much larger than those in the sandy soil and far better than the unfortunate few planted in clay.

We've learned much since those early horticultural ventures, including how important it is when planting to replace nutrient-poor dirt with soil rich in organic matter such as manure and compost.

Recently we've been rethinking the lines of trees bordering our driveway. In hopes of still creating a leafy tunnel, we've decided to remove most of the loquats and replace them with some of our favorite clumping bamboo. As owners of a bamboo nursery, we know that within just a couple of years, the bamboos will form the type of arching canopy I had hoped the loquat trees would provide. Although the bamboos won't bear fruit, they will be beautiful to look at, listen to and watch as they sway in the wind.

That brings me back to our existing plantings. In trying to decide which loquat trees to keep and which to remove, we've been paying particularly close attention to this year's crop. After daily taste tests -- it's a tough job but someone has to do it -- we've pretty much got it down to four keepers; two trees that produce particularly sweet white-fleshed fruit, one early variety that is a heavy bearer and one tree covered with unusually small-seeded flavorful orange-fleshed fruit.

Thanks to my husband and his trusty tractor -- equipment we didn't have when we first bought the property and planted the loquats -- some of the trees planned for removal will be transplanted into enriched soil somewhere else on the property. The remaining will be fortified with a top dressing of fertilizer. The clumping bamboo will be set in well-composted soil rich in peat and manure with wood chips added for drainage.

It's too bad we didn't know more about proper planting techniques and the appropriate trees to place on the property when we first moved here -- we could have saved a lot of time, energy and money.

Before settling to Florida, we lived on Cape Cod in a small hand-built house in the woods. During the 17 years we lived there, our family grew and so did the structure that surrounded us, expanding from a 20-by-24-foot space to more than double the size. The constant renovation projects prompted us to nickname the house "Afterthought Master-Plan." It was an appropriate moniker for a building that reflected our constantly changing needs and knowledge.

I suppose the same nickname could be applied to the land around our Florida homestead. We have planted and moved countless shrubs, flowers, trees and vines during the 16 years we've lived here. And soon we'll be adding loquat trees to that list.

An old adage says, "The only thing constant is change," and from personal experience I know it to be true. But another saying also applies: "Some things never change." And my love for a fresh-picked fruit is one of those things.

If you have never tasted a loquat, now is the perfect time to give one a try. You won't find loquats in the grocery, but there's probably a tree growing in your neighborhood. Pick the most orange-colored fruit. They can be peeled and pitted or eaten whole except for the seeds. It's a taste too pleasant to ignore.

Congratulations to mom and dad

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel February 24, 2008)

In 1939, a tall dark-haired man named Harold Levy worked as a haberdashery salesman in New York City. Like many other unmarried 27-year-old men of his era, Levy and his siblings lived in their parents' Brooklyn apartment.

A couple of hundred miles to the north, a petite brown-haired woman named Goldie Boxer, 21, lived with her family too. Boxer's home was a picturesque country farm deep in the Catskill Mountains. After the death of her father, her mother converted the farm into a small family-run hotel that catered primarily to a clientele of Jewish guests from the city.

Life wasn't easy for either the man or the woman. Every day she went into town to work as a secretary and, after work, returned to the hotel to assist her mother and siblings.

For him, there were customers to serve, shelves to stock and a trade to learn in an industry that was rapidly expanding.

Although their lives were decidedly different and they resided miles apart, a connection linked the two together.

The wife of Levy's boss was Boxer's aunt, and in the debonair young salesman, the aunt saw a good match for her niece. She tried continually to arrange a meeting between the two, but Levy always refused.

"Who wants to meet their boss's niece?" he said to himself, rejecting her repeated offers.

But fate intervened.

A minor operation sent the city boy to the country for some needed rest and recuperation. As it turned out, the hotel at which Levy sought his country cure was the inn owned by the young woman's family. The rest, as they say, is history.

"It was love at first sight," Levy recalled. "We were married less than six months later."

Now, that couple are celebrating their 68th anniversary -- a noteworthy occasion by any accounts but especially important to me, because my very existence depended on the fortuitous meeting of these two special people. Harold and Goldie Levy are my parents, and every year on Feb. 25, they celebrate the anniversary of their marriage.

It's rare these days for a marriage to last six years, much less 68 years.

Marrying as they did just before the United States entered World War II, my mother faced the difficulties of raising their first child, my brother, alone while her husband was stationed far away in the Philippines. After the war she took care of her dying mother and, before my birth, endured several miscarriages.

In later years, there were the usual assortment of child-centered medical emergencies -- I was quite the accident-prone kid.

My father had a heart attack in the 1970s. After that, although he gave up smoking and took up walking for exercise, he eventually had two more surgeries for heart-related problems. Later in life, my mother also underwent heart surgery, and health-related situations have been an unfortunate focus of many of their recent years.

Despite these trying times, Harold and Goldie Levy stayed true to the commitment they made before a small assemblage of family and friends on that cold February day in 1940. At ages 95 and 89, their lives are indelibly interwoven. They still live together in the same South Florida condo they bought more than 20 years ago.

Why is it that some marriages last while other unions falter? Is there a magic formula for the perfect match? To find answers, I turned to the experts, my own parents.

"Love your wife and listen to her," my father advised. "If she wants something, you give in, even if you don't really agree."

Not surprisingly, my mother agreed.

"We don't really argue about things that are important," she said. "Of course we disagree about little things, like this morning when I said one building was where we were supposed to go and he said it wasn't, but about big things we don't disagree. We just never argue."

This "no arguing" philosophy might sound simplistic, but if it's one couple's formula for long-term marriage, who knows, it might work for others.

All I know is that I'm lucky to have parents who love each other and who have had the good fortune of sharing so many years of their lives together.

"We get along splendidly all the time," is how my father summed up his 68-year marriage to my mother.

If that's not a cause for celebration, what is?

Happy anniversary, Mom and Dad.