Monday, May 26, 2008

Nature's ability to rebound keeps landscape green

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel May 25, 2008)

I'm constantly amazed by how quickly plants grow in Florida's sunny climate. Even during periods of extended dryness as we're experiencing now, established plants hang in there. Some even prosper.

When we settled into our homestead 16 years ago, there were only five trees of any consequence -- two oaks and three pines -- on the entire 50 acres. The land was so open and expansive that we were able to cut hay from it for several seasons. I remember field mice and rats scurrying for cover as the haying machine churned its way through the fields. Meadowlarks were plentiful, and the yellow flowers of evening primrose bloomed daily at dusk.

We made the most of the treeless landscape, but our intention was always to pepper the property with trees. Right away we began planting -- first, bamboo to create privacy screens, and then slash and sand pines to develop future woods. Gazing now upon our lush forests and swaying stands of clumping bamboo, it's hard to believe there was really a time when I looked out on a landscape that was treeless and bare.

Although only two of the original trees on the property were mature oaks, the land is now shaded by more than 100 of these sturdy hardwoods. Not one was intentionally planted -- birds and squirrels did all the work. Thanks to them, acorns sprouted and grew into towering trees that are at least 40 feet tall and equally as broad. To look at them you'd think they were at least 50 years old, but despite their girth and verdant canopy, these trees are still babies. I can only imagine what they'll look like when a half-century does roll around.

In addition to oaks, we have other volunteers. There are large stands of wild persimmons, laurel cherries, wax myrtles, river birches, elderberries and willows. Willow trees are impermanent. At the first hint of a large windstorm, they inevitably blow over, bend or break. They may be brittle, but the humble willow is also tenacious. Broken limbs or bent boughs re-root with ease, spawning fast-growing suckers that stretch upward for light.

In the 16 years since we've been here, we have watched the land recede into itself during droughts and swell during spells of rain-saturated soil. Throughout it all, plants have adapted. Most trees survived these extreme seasonal fluctuations, but the few that died didn't go to waste. Birds and bugs bored holes in their trunks in search of food or shelter. Branches that fell to the ground turned into thickets -- safe spots in which small animals could hide. And whatever remnants of limb or trunk remained eventually decomposed with the aid of ants, beetles and other insects of the undergrowth. Thanks to those trees that didn't make it, the soil grew rich enough to support new life.

The land has changed from field to woods, and with that shift has come an exchange of species. Meadowlarks and primroses have all but disappeared, replaced by other birds, mammals and flowers.

Watching the land evolve is like being involved in a Darwinian moment. Nature's effortless ability to adapt and rebound is awesome and inspiring. Even today, as fires rage across the region, destroying landscapes and devouring buildings, one thing is certain -- nature will rebound. New plants will emerge from among the ashes, and before long, black scars will be hidden beneath a flush of green.

I'm glad to be living in such a resilient climate. Plants respond brilliantly to Florida's primal elements. What better time to add greenery to the landscape than in a time of flames, drought and barrenness? Plant some trees now and 16 years later you, too, might be living in the forest of your dreams.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Mother's Day joy at Scrabble tourney is more than words can say

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel May 18, 2008)

It has been a week since Mother's Day, and I'm still smiling. Instead of celebrating with dinner out, a bouquet of flowers or new earrings, I played in a Scrabble tournament. The tournament actually took place a day before Mother's Day, but the 24-hour discrepancy meant little to this word-game devotee.

In my mind, it was a Mother's Day present from "busy-me" to "have-some-fun-me." And it worked. I had a blast.

Sponsored by the Casselberry Scrabble Club and put on in Geneva at the Sanford Yacht Club, the gathering drew 30 participants. Esther Gluskin, 82, of Orlando was the oldest attendee, and at age 16, my son Toby was the youngest.

It was a pleasantly eclectic mix of people -- men and women, young and old -- all gathered together to share their passion for a game that has fascinated word lovers for more than 70 years.

Invented in 1931 by Albert Butts, an unemployed architect from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., the game that combined anagrams with crossword puzzles was initially named LEXIKO and then changed to CRISS CROSS WORDS.

But it didn't capture the attention of a broad audience until Butts joined forces with game entrepreneur James Brunot in the 1940s and coined the name Scrabble, a word meaning "to grope frantically." As a board game, Scrabble is now second only to Monopoly in popularity, with more than 2 million sets in 27 languages sold annually.

Its parent organization, the National Scrabble Association, sanctions more than 200 clubs in North America and sponsors tournaments like the one I attended. For those who can't attend a club or who just want to need to feed their addiction to all things wordy, Scrabble devotees can play online on a variety of Web sites devoted to this 100-tile word game.

Although I've signed up to play online, I have not played a game yet. There are technological hurdles to overcome that I haven't yet conquered -- small hurdles, no doubt, but nonetheless, things to do that I haven't taken the time to figure out.

Maybe that's why I was so excited when Brett Constantine sent me an e-mail about the Orlando-area tournament. Brett is my daughter Jenny's boyfriend. They live in Massachusetts, where Brett organized and runs a sanctioned Scrabble club and regularly attends tournaments.

He and I played one another a few months back during a weekend visit. I think we managed to fit in three games during their brief stay, one of which I even won.

As in any sport where you're striving to improve your game, playing against someone whose level of performance is a step up from your own is an important challenge. I didn't care how many games I lost to Brett -- the fun was in the opportunity to play against someone so good.

That's how I felt on the day of the Casselberry Scrabble Club tournament. It was my first tournament of any kind, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't just a little bit scared.

Throughout my entire first game, I exhibited many typical signs of anxiety -- racing heart, sweaty palms and difficulty concentrating. Needless to say, I lost that game, but I won the next and the one after that and two more as well.

For a tournament newbie, my performance wasn't too shabby. I ended up with four wins out of seven games played -- enough to earn $40, the sixth place prize for my division. My son, of course, did better, finishing third -- a payout of $65 -- in the same division.

Toby is a whiz when it comes to competitions. A rising star in the chess world, he has been playing in chess tournaments since he was in third grade. The shelf in his bedroom is lined with trophies, and though I'm not a chess player, I passed my passion for Scrabble on to him when he was young and receptive.

For many years, I won regularly. Ha! Those days are gone. His mental capacity for memorizing esoteric and unusual words far exceeds mine. His focus is solid, and his comfort level for competitive play is well honed from eight years of chess tournaments.

It was a multifaceted treat to play in the Scrabble tournament. I spent an entire day engaged in a mentally stimulating activity that was challenging and fun.

I left the event with prize money in my pocket and, more significant, I managed to successfully detach myself from the cell phone for a full nine hours -- that alone is worthy of celebration.

Add to all this the opportunity to spend quality time with my teenage son sharing an activity that we both enjoy, and I'd say you have a winning combination no matter how you spell it. If that's not what Mother's Day is all about, what is?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Private land of enchantment can be only 13 steps away

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel May 11, 2008)

I've been spending time every day in an exotic location, but I don't have to travel to get there.

The place I escape to is in the second story of our house. It's only 13 steps up from the main floor, but as I climb the stairs, it's as if I enter another continent.

The room is interspersed with bamboo accents. It's a sunny space with sloping ceilings and a dormer window. The walls are painted in soft earth tones. The ceiling is blue, the color of sky. Bright and clean and sparsely furnished, it's a quiet room that invites introspection.

When I open the door and step within, I'm struck by serenity soft as a feather. So many things in that room make me smile.

When Ralph and I built our house, we designed an attic that could one day be converted into living space. I've always had a special fondness for attic spaces. Slanting ceilings, short knee walls and dormer windows prompt recollections of my childhood bedroom on the second story of my parents' house in Yardley, Pa. It was a happy time, and I suppose it stayed with me. Youthful memories have a lock on our psyches. The bedroom of my youth became the mental prototype of my ideal room. I've always known that someday, as an adult, I'd create a space to embody the essence of that long-ago bedroom.

Dream merged with reality this past year, thanks to the carpentry efforts of our friend Robbie Taylor. Robbie skillfully transformed my vision into living space. But rather than replicate the past, I wanted the room to reflect the present. I wanted it filled with bamboo.

Robbie took smooth tan bamboo poles, split them in half lengthwise, then used them as baseboard, window trim and edging along the walls. Across from the bed -- a futon on the carpeted floor -- is an entire knee wall completely covered by thin reed fencing. Trimmed out with bamboo halves, the reed wall looks exotic, tropical and alluring. It's a visual invitation to relax, sit back, forget daily woes and concentrate on the moment.

I climb the steps to that room each day about noon. My anticipation of all things tranquil begins as soon as my hand touches the banister -- another bamboo cane -- that guides my passage. Once upstairs, the first thing I do is open the windows and enjoy the sounds. Birds high up in a giant oak sing from the branches. A melodious chorus, but who are the singers? I attempt to identify the bird songs as I lie back on the futon. Preparing to be lost -- lost in blue skies and clouds, birds and butterflies, bamboo canes bending in the breeze and oak leaves rustling.

Am I on the beach? In a cabin? Am I adrift on a boat? Wherever my mind wants to wander, the room is my journey. Ever ready to travel.

I had no idea I'd love it this much. I had no idea it would be so needed.

I live in a beautiful place. Our yard, the paths through the woods, the lake, our house -- it's all wonderful and amazing. It's an incredible place to be. But even here, in a paradise of our own creation, escape is essential. I'm busy with work. As a mother, a writer, a small-business owner, I wear many hats and often get boggled. The phone rings. I answer. An e-mail arrives. I respond. I chauffeur my son and shop for the groceries. Make meals. Clean up. Do laundry. Help customers. Discuss plans. Make decisions. Field questions and more questions.

Just a typical mom in this modern-day world.

Like all busy people, I need a time and a place to tune down mental chatter and turn up the dial on everyday magic.

First thing in the morning, that place is my rowboat -- a meditation to start the day. But by the time noon rolls around, my morning mellowness has faded. Like an aging battery in need of frequent recharges, I know it's time to find a charging station.

I find it upstairs. The room at the top of the stairs is the outlet that fills my drained self with energy.

I spend time every day in an exotic location. My husband joins me, and we drift off together.

Who says you have to travel to go places? Some journeys are best taken in the comfort of your own home.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Bad rap on exotic cherry is the pits

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel May 4, 2008)

I just picked the first fruits from my Surinam cherry bushes. If you've never heard of Surinam cherries, you're not alone. Unless you're from a West Indian or South American country, you're probably unfamiliar with the small red-to-black fruit that grows on this common hedge plant.

Also called Brazilian cherry, cayenne cherry or the more exotic moniker pitanga, Surinam cherry is more bush than tree. This evergreen shrub with glossy red-green leaves is being used in the Amazon for rain-forest reforestation because its fruit is an important food source for many species of birds.

While birds might be attracted to the slightly acidic marble-sized fruit, most people aren't. Even in my own fruit-loving family, my son Timmy, daughter Amber and I are the only ones who get excited about these sweet-'n'-sour cherries.

Always intrigued by the unusual, and particularly fond of cherries in general, I stumbled upon pitangas many years ago at a local nursery. Unfortunately, winter killed my first couple of plants. Although mature specimens are tolerant of cold weather, young plants are easily damaged when the thermometer takes a nose dive.

Five years ago, I tried again after visiting a friend whose established plants were covered with fruit. This time, thanks to a warmer series of winters, none died. They didn't bear fruit either. It was only after being transplanted to a spot with rich soil that they flourished. While none of my four plants are producing quantities of cherries, they provide enough to satisfy my taste for the exotic.

I am enjoying my Surinam cherries, but according to the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council, I shouldn't be. My edible hedge plant is one of 67 exotic imports on the council's Category I "bad plant" list. If you go to the council's Web site,, you'll see pitanga along with 66 other plants labeled "invasive exotics that are altering native plant communities by displacing native species, changing community structures or ecological functions, or hybridizing with natives."

I certainly don't want to upset the ecological balance but I have a hard time understanding why Surinam cherries are considered so evil. My young plants were killed by cold, and the mature plants didn't produce fruit until they were transplanted to a spot with rich soil. Yes, the birds like them and probably spread the seeds to other habitats, but isn't that a good thing? I thought it was a positive step to add to the landscape low-maintenance, drought-tolerant plants that provide sources of food and shelter for wildlife.

Anyone who takes the time to explore the FLEPPC Web site will be surprised by how many well-loved plants are listed as harbingers of environmental havoc. That fragrant camphor tree shading your front yard -- it's on the list. So is the Japanese honeysuckle vine on your trellis and the nandina in your flowerbed. Two kinds of guavas are labeled no-nos, as well as two species of ligustrum. The popular ruellia, better known as Mexican petunia, is considered a Category I plant along with the much-favored lantana.

I have no doubt there are "bad guys" in the horticultural world. No one will question the invasiveness of hydrilla that clogs up lakes, rivers and streams or the climbing vine kudzu that covers and smothers trees. While those plants are on the FLEPPC list, other invasives aren't. Where I live, fox grapes are a menace. Their roots are unstoppable, their tentacles tenacious. They choke the life out of any trees they climb and are impossible to control. But because wild fox grape is a Florida native, the council gives it and other native plants a free pass.

What's wrong with this picture? I appreciate the efforts of the volunteer FLEPPC staff -- a dedicated group of plant management professionals -- but I don't think their decisions should be accepted unquestioningly. Some of the same qualities that label a plant invasive -- its need for little to no maintenance, ability to tolerate drought and prosper under adverse conditions -- are also qualities that make it attractive to the home gardener. And if it also attracts wildlife, provides food, fragrance, color and variety, so much the better.

If I have to fuss over a plant, I won't grow it. If it requires regular applications of herbicides or chemicals to stave off diseases, it's the wrong plant for my yard. And, in these environmentally sensitive times, it may also be the wrong plant for the planet at large.

If you stop to think about it, most of us who live in Florida are invasive exotics. We come here from out of state to live on land that was once wild. The space we take up with our homes and workplaces, shopping centers, highways and airports is land that once supported a wide range of plant and animal communities. But no one is putting Ohioans or New Yorkers on a Category I list of community-changing species or suggesting we eradicate these native-displacers from the landscape.

It might not be politically correct, but I'm glad I'm growing the Surinam cherry. It's a tasty, fuss-free plant that I feel safe adding to my landscape. If it shows signs of invasiveness, I may reconsider, but, for now, it's a keeper.