Monday, December 28, 2009

Swapping used books is a win-win situation

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel December 27, 2009)

I've jump-started my New Year's resolutions by joining an online book-swapping site called For years I've been meaning to do something with all the books our family has accumulated. Hundreds of hardcover and paperback novels and nonfiction books fill our assorted bookshelves. The overflow titles are precariously stacked on the floor or tucked away in boxes in the attic.

It's not that we don't like books — it's that we like them too much. Although Ralph and I find it difficult to part with even the most esoteric titles, there comes a time when enough is enough. You look at the untidy mess of dust-catching tomes and ask yourself why you still have every book you've ever owned. Why, for example, do I have two copies of Sue Grafton's A is for Alibi? How much longer need I hold on to Edinburgh City Guide now that my daughter has been back from Scotland for seven years?

Accumulation is easy. Getting rid of stuff … not so easy. But that's about to change now that I've discovered a win-win way to merge my love of books with my need to purge.

At, readers like me can offer books for trade, search for titles they'd like to receive and do it all from their computers. There's no membership fee, and you just pay postage ($2.38 for most paperbacks) on books you send to others. For every book sent, you earn one point. Points can be used to "buy" other books (one point equals one book), accumulated to buy audiobooks (two points for each audio book) or donated to charitable causes such as Books for Schools, which provides eligible elementary schools with one new book for every point donated.

Before joining, I did my homework. I spent several hours researching other book exchange sites, read user reviews and watched the how-to videos offered by some of the top sites. received consistently good user ratings, and I found it to be the easiest-to-navigate, best-designed site of the batch. Its book selection is also impressive, with more than 4 million books available to trade.

In the two weeks since I joined the club, I've posted 35 books and I've sent four to people who have requested them. makes the mailing process simple. When someone wants one of my books, I receive an e-mail from the Web site notifying me of the request. If I agree to send the book, creates a mailing label that doubles as a wrapper. All I have to do is print the label, add stamps and put it in the mailbox. Postage is pre-calculated, so I don't have to go to the post office and stand in line.

Trying to reduce the amount of unnecessary items we have around the house is a worthwhile goal. I'll be overjoyed if someday the bookshelves that line our walls contain only books I really want to own instead of the hodgepodge of miscellany they currently hold. It would also be nice to have a few audiobooks to enjoy and copies of some of my favorite titles to give as gifts and to share with my children and grandchildren.

Although New Year's resolutions often start out strong before fading away, I doubt if that will be the case with my book-swapping plans. I have far more than 35 books to post, and I look forward to adding titles as the months go by. I'm also excited to think that the books I post will be going to people who are happy to receive them. Thanks to the virtual library at, I have entered a new world filled with reading pleasure. If that's not motivation for a successful New Year's resolution, I don't know what is.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Traditional pie -- minus all that unhealthy stuff

(To see recipes, please scroll to the bottom of the page)

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel December 21, 2009)

Lately I've been in the mood for pie, so I've been baking up a storm. Sweet-potato pie and blueberry-peach pie are my favorites, but sometimes I experiment with other fruit combinations. Our son Toby really liked the cherry-peach pie I cobbled together when he was home from college. And not too long ago, when I had an abundance of overripe pears, I made a cherry-pear pie with a chopped-nut top crust that had Ralph begging for more.

Pie is such an easy and foolproof dessert to make. Even though I don't use any of the usual ingredients — no sugar, white flour, butter or shortening — my pies taste delicious, consistently earning requests for second and third slices.

Instead of using white flour, I bake with either whole wheat or spelt flour. I especially like the slightly nutty, sweet flavor of spelt flour, which creates a crust that is flavorful without being heavy. White flour (also euphemistically called wheat flour) is a refined food that has had two of the most nutritious parts of the wheat grain removed — the bran and the germ. Even the enriched version of white flour is sadly lacking in nutritional value, since it includes less than a quarter of the grain's original nutrients.

By contrast, spelt flour, a grain in the wheat family, is chockfull of nutritional value. It is high in protein and rich in B-complex vitamins, and it contains a carbohydrate that boosts the immune system. Although no one in my family is allergic to wheat, people who are often find the proteins in spelt easier to digest.

In place of butter, lard or shortening, I use extra-virgin olive oil. If you think olive oil is good only for salad dressing, think again. One-quarter cup of olive oil added to a cup of spelt flour and moistened with an eighth of a cup of ice water yields a delicious, flaky crust that has none of the artery-clogging fat of butter, contains no cholesterol and no chemical additives and is an excellent source of mono-unsaturated fats, vitamin E and beneficial antioxidants.

When I'm feeling ambitious, I make a special pie crust created by my friend Selena. Selena's crust combines a cup of flour — I use either spelt or whole-wheat flour — with a cup each of rolled oats and finely chopped nuts. (I like to use a combination of unsalted, raw almonds, walnuts and Brazil nuts.)

After the dry ingredients are mixed, Selena adds a half-cup of both olive oil and maple syrup, but I substitute two teaspoons of calorie-free stevia for the maple syrup. After the dry and wet ingredients are well blended, I press two-thirds of the mixture into a pie pan, with the remaining portion set aside to spread on top of the desired filling. Unlike my flour crust, which does not require precooking, Selena's crust works better when baked in a 350-degree oven for 15 minutes before filling.

Stevia, the sweetener I like using in Selena's pie crust and for almost all my baking, is a plant-based product with no bitter aftertaste. A member of the Compositae family of herbs — the same family as asters, sunflowers and daisies — stevia is not an artificially derived chemical and doesn't raise blood-sugar levels. What it does do is add sweetness to food without adding calories. In its powdered form, stevia (also sold under the name Truvia) looks identical to sugar, but it's far sweeter. One teaspoon of stevia is equal to a cup of sugar.

One of the things I like best about baking with wholesome ingredients such as whole-wheat or spelt flour, stevia, rolled oats, unsalted raw nuts and extra-virgin olive oil is the lack of guilt involved. You can make foods, eat them and feel good about the entire process. There's not even guilt the next morning when you bite into a slice of leftover pie for breakfast.

Yesterday Ralph and I made short work of the two remaining slices of our sweet-potato and blueberry-peach pies, which means it's time to replenish the proverbial larder with another batch of tasty treats. Eating healthfully doesn't have to be about giving up favorite foods or eating a bland, flavorless diet. You can have it all — including pie — if you're willing to learn about more nutritional alternatives, experiment with different ingredients and open yourself up to new tastes and textures.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Tangerines add a tangy sweetness to the season

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel December 14, 2009)

I just came in with a basket full of homegrown goodness. Our solitary tangerine tree is loaded with fruit, and I've been taking full advantage of the bountiful harvest.

Picking citrus is a very "December" thing to do in Central Florida. Although navel oranges and grapefruits ripen a bit earlier, tangerines come into their prime at Christmastime. The bright reddish-orange orbs suspended from the limbs look like nature's own holiday ornaments.

Plant a tangerine tree near a dahoon holly and you'll have a ready-made display of seasonal merriment. Like citrus trees, dahoon hollies are also compact evergreens that produce an abundance of colorful fruit in the cooler months. By year's end, Florida's native hollies are dotted with bright red pea-sized berries, a sharp contrast to the tree's waxy green leaves. Although inedible by people, holly berries are favored by a variety of wildlife. All the dahoon hollies on our property are volunteers thanks to the inadvertent planting efforts of our feathered friends.

That's not how our tangerine tree began. We planted it and several other citrus trees shortly after we settled on the property 18 years ago. Although we've done well growing figs, papayas, loquats, pineapples, bananas, star fruit and Surinam cherries, our success rate with citrus has been less than stellar. Thanks to a combination of our inadequate knowledge of citrus-grove care and the occasional freeze, we've managed to kill about a dozen of the orange, lemon and kumquat trees we originally planted. The tangerine tree is an exception. Despite everything we've done wrong, the tangerine tree managed to survive. More than that, it's actually thriving.

I'm glad it did because fresh-picked tangerines are so much fun to eat. The fruit is juicy and sweet, yet tangy, too. Tangerines are easy to peel and just the right size for a satisfying snack. In December, when Ralph and I go for walks, I like to begin with a stroll past the citrus grove. Because they're so small, two or three tangerines can fit in my pockets. As we walk along, I peel off the thin skin, separate the segments and measure the miles by munches. I've found that if I eat slowly, I can finish two tangerines in the time it takes me to do a one-mile loop around the lake. Even though at about 50 calories per tangerine I'm ingesting about the same amount of calories burned off by walking a mile, I'm gaining a nutritional high.

Tangerines pack a powerful punch of Vitamin C, folate and beta-carotene. They also contain some potassium, magnesium and vitamins B1, B2 and B3, and they're high in fiber. Although some people might object to the fibrous white "strings" on tangerines, I've always enjoyed peeling off and eating the rutin-rich pith. I also don't mind the pits. Some tangerines are seedless, but the variety we grow contains a number of small seeds.

Ralph, who has never been fond of seedy fruit, has no patience with tangerines. "What do you do with the seeds?" he'll ask as we walk along.

"I spit some out and swallow others," I respond matter-of-factly. "It's no big deal."

It is to him. His seed-removing skills are pitifully lacking.

It doesn't take many trees to satisfy a family's needs for citrus. The one tree in our yard provides enough fruit to fulfill my citrus cravings, with plenty left over to share. For those without a tree of their own, fruit is available at roadside stands. In this season of giving, what better gift to bestow on those we love than nature's own edible holiday ornaments? It's a sweet, juicy way to welcome the New Year.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Working together, we build our lives

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel December 7, 2009)

Last weekend, Ralph and I worked on a building project. We spent several hours finishing off sections of a bamboo gazebo with two attached pergolas. Our friend, Robbie Taylor, had already done the hard part. He had built the roof and the main frame of the structure, a beautiful eight-sided outdoor room made entirely of bamboo poles. When Robbie went off for a weeklong cruise with his wife and grandson, Ralph and I decided to pick up where he left off.

For a couple of out-of-practice carpenters, we didn't do half bad. We had our share of Laurel-and-Hardy moments resulting in a few scratches, splinters and a bit of wasted wood, but overall the project came together much as we imagined. I'd like to say it was fun and, in a way, it was. We were outside together, doing what we do best — planning things out and then making them happen. But the truth is, we're not really carpenters. Ralph doesn't like working with wood the way Robbie does, and although I have a passion for designing structures, I'm impatient when it comes to completing them.

There was a time when we felt different. In the 1970s, we were an idealistic young couple eager to build the house of our dreams. Because we weren't trained carpenters and didn't have enough money to hire others, we decided to do the job ourselves. I drew up plans and paid a carpenter to put up the frame. Ralph worked alongside him, watching everything he did and asking endless questions. I've always admired my husband's ability to pick up new skills. He's a remarkably adaptable and capable person who doesn't get discouraged the way some of us do — me, for example — when their first attempts fail or their beginning efforts are less than perfect.

With his newly attained skills, Ralph worked his way through the remaining homebuilding tasks. He insulated, wired and put up drywall. He built and installed cabinets, put on the roof, installed windows and shingled the exterior. He was in charge. I was the gofer.

"Sherry, bring me the box of six-penny nails," he would ask, or "Get me the screwdriver with the Phillips head bit." Unlike Ralph, who never felt insignificant or bothered when he assisted the framer, I often found myself annoyed by his constant demands. That feeling resurfaced last weekend when we worked on the gazebo.

"I feel like I'm not doing enough just standing here holding the ladder and handing you things," I told my husband as we worked on attaching the pergola roof.

"You're doing fine," he reassured me. "It saves a lot of time with you there to help."

In my younger years, I might have dismissed that comment as condescending, but not anymore. I've realized the truth in those simple words. When you work together, you share responsibilities, acknowledge each other's abilities and do whatever is necessary to get the job done.

Instead of getting upset because I wasn't the one in charge, I used the time to stand back and admire the man I married 39 years ago this month. As I stood there on the ground, watching my husband sacrifice his time to give me a structure I wanted, I realized how far we'd come since that first carpentry project in the 1970s. Working as a team, we've not only built and renovated dozens of houses but, more important, we've constructed a life that reflects our dreams.

Building a long-lasting marriage is a lot like framing a gazebo. Someone has to be willing to pick up fallen nails, steady the ladder and get the necessary tools to make the structure stronger. You don't have to be a master carpenter to whittle together a satisfying life, but it helps if you can share the work with someone you love.

Monday, November 30, 2009

A little bird told me … wake up!

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel November 30, 2009)

For a small bird, the Carolina wren has a big voice. "Tsk ... tsk ... tsk ... tsk ... tsk," it scolds in a deep bellow that belies its diminutive size.

For several weeks I've awakened to the songs and chatterings of these buff-colored birds with the distinctive white stripe above their beady black eyes.

"Do you know what's making that noise?" I asked Ralph one morning while we were still in bed.

"A frog?" he suggested, "or some kind of cricket?"

"Nope," I said as I slipped out from under the covers and walked to the porch. "It's a bird — a tiny bird with a loud mouth."

Sure enough, I spotted a female wren hopping from the lower limbs of a crape myrtle to the protective cover provided by a bed of yellow-flowered wedelia.

Although it weighs less than nine dimes, a Carolina wren is a powerhouse of activity. From dawn till dusk, these adaptable dwellers of farms, fields and gardens scour the ground and lower limbs of bushes and trees in search of the foods they like best — insects, spiders and the occasional berry.

From years of observing these charming chirpers, I've concluded that they rarely partake in any activity without a good deal of vocalization. What I didn't realize is that while females chatter, only the male birds sing. Males fill the air with a steady stream of high-pitched, whistled melodies while their female counterparts engage in a series of repetitive mutterings.

Scientists who have studied captive Carolina wrens have documented as many as 3,000 different songs by a single male in a day. With such a strong desire for self-expression, it's no wonder I find myself roused in the early morning by a bird-song serenade.

Carolina wrens are terrestrial creatures that tend to use their wings more for assistance when hopping over large objects than for actual flying. When they are not busy building their beautifully woven cavelike nests, these mate-for-life birds expend considerable energy defending their territory and warning each other of potential dangers.

In addition to the ever-present threat posed by domestic cats, predators of the adult birds include blue jays, hawks and owls. Because the parents prefer nesting sites less than 10 feet off the ground, the oval-shaped eggs are particularly vulnerable. Squirrels, raccoons, snakes and fox all feed on the cream-colored, brown spotted ova.

Although Carolina wrens are notorious for their loud songs and persistent chattering, they are also famous for their unusual nests. No abandoned article of clothing or footwear is safe from these clever weavers of twigs, weeds and found materials. Carolina wrens are just as likely to build their nests in a forgotten pair of boots, the pocket of an old shirt or an upturned garden hat as they are to use natural settings such as an old stump or a tangle of vines. I've discovered their handiwork on a shelf in our garage, inside a flowerpot filled with rain lilies and in the hollow belly of an old mailbox.

Lately I've been wondering if nest building is on the mind of the bird that has been waking me each morning from my slumber. There is a definite pattern to its beseeching cries. The sounds begin about the same time each day, come from the same part of the yard and are intoned with the same sense of insistence and urgency. If I wasn't still so tired during this daily deluge of avian verbosity, I might follow the bird and figure out what it is doing.

Most mornings, however, I'm too sleepy for all that. It's all I can manage to pull the covers over my head, nestle into the pillow and strive to re-enter a dreamlike state. Unfortunately, that tactic is rarely successful. Although I admire the little chirpers that inhabit my yard, their admonishments for my sluggish behavior inevitably drift into my sleep-muffled head.

"Tsk … tsk … tsk …," they seem to say. "It's time to get up."

Who needs an alarm clock when you have a back yard filled with birds?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Thank you, dear readers, for being there

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel November 23, 2009)

Thank you … two little words I don't say as often as I should. In the spirit of the upcoming holiday, I'm devoting today's column to words of appreciation. I'm addressing you, my reader, to thank you for being there, to thank you for listening.

I've always been a person who writes. From childhood on, my most comfortable means of expressing thoughts, feelings and observations has been the written word. I grew up in a picturesque setting in Pennsylvania that primed the pump of my imagination. The poems and essays that flowed from the wellspring of my youth were filled with ponderings and pronouncements inspired by the world at my doorstep.

Although I left Yardley years ago, I never outgrew my love of nature. The wonders of the world around me still fill me with awe. Over the years, I've poured out my feelings through stories, songs, poems and essays. For the past three years, I've been grateful to have a vehicle — my column — to share my thoughts and observations with you.

I am especially grateful to everyone who has supported my efforts. So many people have taken the time to send e-mails or to call and share personal experiences that often mirrored the subjects of my writing. Occasionally you have asked me to speak to groups, and at those times I've been able to meet you in person. As a writer who works from home, I find such meetings to be a rare delight with special meaning.

Recently, I published my first book, Rowing Through The Mist: The Everyday Pleasures of Simply Living. This 164-page collection of 42 essays and 43 photographs focuses on the things I know and love best —nature, family life and the changing seasons. Although publishing a book has been a lifelong goal, I plan for this book to be the first of many. My mind overflows with thoughts and ideas. There are many more words waiting to be written, printed and shared.

In these difficult economic times, when so many people are hurting financially and emotionally, it is especially important to remember the goodness. From birdsongs to sunsets and everything in between, we live in a world surrounded by beauty. Even in the darkest of nights, there are shooting stars to brighten our outlook, spark our imagination and encourage our wonder.

For me, the magic lies not in the blatant glare of the latest techno-toy but in the everyday treasures we tend to overlook. I see it as my job — and what a wonderful job it is — to focus attention on those simple pleasures, the little things in life that help us regain our perspective and improve our mood.

Because of you, my reader, I am encouraged to continue finding ways to express that magic. Your response to my writing has been a most generous gift, and it's now my turn to return the favor. So, in honor of Thanksgiving, a holiday dedicated to expressing appreciation, I offer my most heartfelt thanks. Without readers, a writer is a silent voice. You give me the means to make myself heard, and for that I am humbly and most sincerely grateful.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Cow encounter is unexpected and unforgettable

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel November 15, 2009)

I'm always on the lookout for wildlife. I look for snakes and turtles, rabbits and armadillos, raccoons, foxes, bobcats, coyotes and birds of every shape and color. Whenever I walk into my kitchen, I find myself peering out a bay window that offers a long view of the yard, a path through the woods and the untamed acres beyond. I look because that vantage point has often rewarded me with wildlife sightings.

That's what I did the other day. Ralph was taking his midday siesta, which enabled me to anticipate some quiet "alone time" in the kitchen. My plan was to fix a nice lunch and eat at the kitchen table while sipping tea and reading Davita's Harp by Chaim Potok. It was a good plan, but it never happened. When I entered the kitchen, I did my usual glance out the window, and what I saw put everything else on hold.

Two cows were grazing about 25 feet away from the house. Although Ralph and I raise dozens of different bamboo, raising bovine is not part of the picture. We have no livestock, and ever since our dog and cat died a few years ago, we don't even have pets. Therefore, you can imagine my surprise when I saw not one but two large farm animals using our yard as if it were their private pasture.

I put my novel down, picked up the camera and entered "wildlife photographer" mode. The cattle — one a brown-and-white female and the other a jet-black male that appeared to be the female's calf — seemed indifferent to my presence. Their big, round eyes focused on the sudden surplus of succulent greenery as I surreptitiously followed. My digital camera clicked away as the cows munched their way up the hill and down the narrow path above the clay wall that borders our driveway.

The female was definitely in charge. Her youthful counterpart trailed with a timorous curiosity. At one point when I approached too close, the black calf became spooked. After fixing me with a gaze that seemed to say, "How dare you come so near!" he bounded off in a gangling trot. The calf caught up to his food-fixated parent who, by that time, had moved on to a greener patch of weedy grass.

Long ago, in our pre-children days, Ralph and I raised a few chickens and a small herd of goats, but neither of us have had experience with larger livestock. I didn't grow up riding horses, and, before this encounter, the closest I'd ever been to cattle was when I interviewed Bay Lake resident Stephanie Copper for a 2004 Orlando Sentinel article. Copper, who is something of a cow whisperer, regularly sings and talks to her small herd of Barzona beef cattle. During the interview, I watched in amazement as the blond cowgirl communed with her tail-swishing charges. She even introduced me to an imposing bull that responded to her caresses with an indulgent patience that bordered on love.

I can't say I love cattle, but I did love chancing upon a bovine moment in my own backyard. The cows, who must have escaped from a neighbor's herd, seemed equally delighted with their own discovery. The adage, "The grass is greener on the other side of the fence," kept coming to mind as I watched the grazing duo meander from one patch of tall grass to another.

I tagged along for about 15 minutes before returning home to my own midday meal. I was still in the kitchen a short time later when a loud crunching sound caught my attention. The cattle were striding across the lawn right next to the house, their hoofed feet crushing the fallen sycamore leaves.

Although I'm used to seeing wildlife through the kitchen window, the sight of two cows right next to the house threw me for a loop. Just when I thought my days couldn't get any crazier, stray cattle appeared from out of nowhere to graze on my front lawn. The whole episode reinforced my belief in expecting the unexpected. It also made me rethink the phrase "wildlife encounter." Perhaps wildlife "en-cow-nter" would be a more appropriate spelling. However it's spelled, my midday interaction was a moo-ving experience that was udderly (sorry about that) unforgettable.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Fight litter with fines

(First appeared in Orlando Sentienl November 8, 2009)

The road to my house is trashed. Plastic bags, fast-food containers and a random assortment of tossed-away items line the county-maintained, two-lane road that takes me home.

I recently returned from a weekend trip to southeastern Pennsylvania, where roadsides were surprisingly free of litter. With my host in the driver's seat, I was able to enjoy the view instead of concentrating on street signs and directions. What I saw as we traveled through one small town after another were pretty houses, harvested fields and neat yards. What I didn't see were plastic bags drifting across those fields, snagged on fences or fluttering from tree limbs. I didn't see piles of used tires stacked along streets, nor did I see the remains of yesterday's pick-up-and-go lunch.

In Florida, a more appropriate label for such fast-food fare would be a pick-up-and-throw meal, because so many residents of the Sunshine State treat the landscape like their personal landfill. When a beer can is empty, a cheeseburger consumed or a soda slurped, car windows get rolled down and those empty bottles, bags, cans, cups, straws, papers, plastics and cigarette butts get thrown away to join all the other litter lining our state's large and small roads. That seems to be the misguided mind-set of many Florida residents.

The curbed roadsides in small Pennsylvania towns such as Newtown, Yardley, New Hope and Wycombe didn't act as open-air receptacles for broken beer bottles or smashed soda cans. Even in Allentown, a small city (population 107,200) that's five times bigger than Leesburg, litter was a non-issue.

I wish it were a non-issue in Florida.

Crews from Lake County's public-works department spent much of October mowing the tall grasses that border the county-maintained roads. I watched as mowers hacked back months of overgrown weeds and untamed grasses. Unfortunately, while neatening the roadside, the machines chopped up and spewed massive amounts of trash. Hidden beneath the tall growth was a season's worth of garbage, and since mower blades can't differentiate between Bahia grass and broken glass, they scattered both.

I suppose that the remains of yesterday's fast-food lunch will decompose faster if shredded, but that doesn't make it any less of an eyesore. A drive down our county's roads is a portrait in ugliness, thanks to the inconsiderate actions of our fellow citizens.

Lake County has so much beauty. Our waterways, hills and small towns have a distinctive look unmatched by any other Florida county, yet we allow that beauty to be marred by litter.

Is it possible to change the way people act? How can we make litterbugs aware that what they do is wrong? Perhaps we can start by enforcing the existing Florida Litter Law, which carries community-service hours plus fines of $50 to $1,000, depending on the amount of trash dumped illegally.

Anyone who has received a ticket for going 55 in a 40 mph zone knows how effective speed traps can be. Driving habits change quickly when speeders face payment of hefty fines. Why not apply that same logic to litter? If police departments were to actively engage in an anti-littering campaign, not only would towns have a sudden source of new income but litterers also would quickly learn to stop breaking laws. If everyone who was used to flicking spent cigarettes out of car windows or throwing beer cans on the ground knew they stood a good chance of being fined, I bet we'd see a significant reduction in the amount of litter.

Or, we can continue to do nothing.

We can continue to tolerate the bad habits of others. We can let ugliness and inconsiderateness rule. When it comes right down to it, it's up to us — people who care enough to say, "This must stop." After all, litter is not going to go away by itself. Adopt-a-Road programs help, but they don't do enough. The only way to rein in the downpour of debris flooding our roads is to attack litterers where they are most vulnerable — in their wallets.

Fining litterbugs would be fine by me.

Monday, November 2, 2009

An overdue bloom


(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel November 2, 2009)

My Mexican sunflowers are finally blooming. It sure took them long enough. Tithonia diversifolia must be one of the pokiest plants around. Although the buds started swelling a few weeks ago, the large, daisy-like blossoms only began appearing at the end of October. Drive through any neighborhood and you’re bound to notice a few of the tall, bushy plants peeking over fences and along property lines. The flowers, when they finally open, look like giant golden daisies. The bushes often tops out around 15-feet, tall enough to tower over hibiscus, oleanders and other ornamental shrubs.

I like Mexican sunflowers because the flowers are so cheery and because they attract a number of butterflies and bees. What I don’t like about them is how difficult they are to properly place in the landscape. I’d probably feel differently if tithonia bloomed for a longer time or looked more attractive when it wasn’t flowering. It would also help if the cold didn’t kill it back every year reducing the bush to an unruly skeleton of gawky stalks. Until the buds turn into flowers, tithonia is an ugly plant. It’s tall and leggy with rough, hairy stems and broad, unattractive leaves. In its pre-bloom state – which is most of the year - it looks more like a huge weed than an ornamental perennial. In some ways, that’s exactly what it is.

I planted my first Mexican sunflower near the house but Ralph was never happy with that location.

“Can’t you move it somewhere else?” he repeatedly asked. “How about someplace where it can sprawl without being in the way of the mower?”

My practical husband had a point. The tall stalks have a tendency to lean over, touch the ground and re-root. That’s a fine attribute for small plants but not such a positive trait when you’re talking about a 12- to 15-foot tall shrub that grows equally as broad.

Our son, Timmy, took Ralph’s suggestion to heart and relocated several tithonias to a spot alongside his vegetable garden. Unfortunately, Timmy then moved away, leaving the plants (and his abandoned vegetable garden) for us to tend.

“They’re still in the way,” Ralph remarked one day when the mower was attempting to whack that area back into a semblance of order.

I’d like to relocate the existing plants to a place on the property where they can sprawl as much as they want. In my ideal world, that spot would be within sight of my front porch so I can look out the windows and enjoy the massive clusters of golden blooms but it wouldn’t be in the forefront. I don’t want to look out and see the plant most of the year when it is not flowering and I especially don’t want it to be front and center after the first frost when whatever blooms remain have withered up and fallen off.

“How about planting it across the lake,” I suggested the other day. “That way, I could look out the windows and still see it but it won’t be in the way of the mower.”

Ralph agreed that the other side of the lake might be a good spot. All we have to do is cut back the existing clumps, dig them up and replant them on the other side of the lake in enriched soil. It’s a good idea but not something we’re going to do right now when the tithonias are finally covered in blooms.

I hope we get to it this winter. After years of growing Mexican sunflowers in the wrong place, it would be nice to finally get it right.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A sweet journey back in time

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel October 26, 2009)

I just finished eating a candy apple. October is my birthday month, and indulging in treats that I usually don't eat is one of my birthday traditions. This year, not only did I enjoy eating a bright red candy apple, I traveled to Pennsylvania to get it. Another birthday gift to myself was a return to my hometown, coinciding with my 40-year high school reunion. For my 58th birthday, I traveled back in time to my youth, revisiting old friends, driving down winding country roads and stopping by some of the businesses I frequented in my childhood.

My friend Megan picked me up at the airport, and we used the 45-minute drive from Philadelphia to Yardley to fill in the gaps since we last saw each other 23 years ago. After driving past both of our childhood homes, we stopped at Cramer Bakery, where I was hoping to find the pecan crescent cookies I was so fond of as a child. Unfortunately, the bakery — which looked amazingly the same as it did in 1969 — had sold out of those particular cookies. That's probably just as well. One lesson I learned from my birthday trip is that edible remembrances of times gone by are often sweeter than the treats themselves.

Megan drove me to the home of Mary Ann, another classmate I had known since kindergarten. Because Megan had opted out of attending the reunion, my plans were to stay at Mary Ann's house for the weekend and go with her to the reunion activities. Mary Ann and her husband, Harry, live in the small town of Wycombe in a historic home that they have lovingly restored. Even though we hadn't seen each other for four decades, meeting Mary Ann had none of the awkwardness one would expect after so much time. Despite the years, our interests and lifestyle choices were remarkably similar. We caught up with each other quickly and felt immediately at ease.

Mary Ann and I attended several pre-reunion gatherings with former classmates. A few of us met one morning at Styer Orchard, where I bought the candy apple. Like Cramer's, Styer's was around when I was a child, and memories of going there in autumn for pumpkin pies and candy apples flavored my youth. Another old familiar haunt was Goodnoe Farm Dairy Bar, an ice cream parlor where I worked as a teen. Although I rarely eat ice cream anymore, for old time's sake I ordered a sugar cone topped with a generous scoop of cherry vanilla ice cream.

All of our outings weren't about food. About a dozen classmates gathered at Bowman's Tower, a 125-foot-tall stone tower near Washington's Crossing that we used to frequent. Although we obeyed the rules and rode the elevator to the top (an elevator that wasn't there during our high school years), some of us opted to take the stairs back down even though a sign told us the stairway was off limits. We were, after all, the class of '69 — once a rebel, always a rebel. Another outing was to the artistic community of New Hope along the Delaware River, where we listened to the Sonic Falcons, a band made up of former classmates. Even though people there were friendly and the music was fun, I felt out of the loop at that gathering. The venue was loud and smoky, two qualities for which my 58-year-old body has minimal tolerance.

The reunion dinner itself was anti-climactic, in part because the chief organizer of the weekend events, a classmate named Sharon, fell ill at the last minute and couldn't attend.

My birthday trip to Lower Bucks County provided no shortage of treats. I saw about a dozen deer and hundreds of geese. The leaves on the trees were in full autumnal splendor, something I haven't seen in such richness and intensity for many years. As we drove along picturesque roads, we passed beautiful stone farmhouses surrounded by harvested cornfields. Yes, I ate a candy apple, but far sweeter and longer-lasting than any of my edible treats were the friendships I rekindled. Getting to reconnect with Megan, Mary Ann, Sharon, Tom, Ron, Suzanne, Coreen, Bev, Betsy and so many others was far more special than any taste of artificial sweetness.

They say you can't go back in time, but this year, for my birthday, that's exactly what I did.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Aptly named beautyberry thrives

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel October 19, 2009)

Beautyberry earns its name in autumn. As a small deciduous shrub, Callicarpa americana is a blaze of brightness in an October woods. The fruit is the plant's most striking feature. Clusters of tiny berries the color of passion — a pulsating pinkish-purple — cling to leaf axils like beads on a necklace. In verdant woods, where greens predominate, catching sight of a beautyberry bush is like chancing upon an unexpected gemstone — its color dazzles.

Eighteen years ago, the property we live on had none of the attributes beautyberry requires. As an understory plant, Callicarpa americana likes a semi-shaded location where accumulated plant litter has turned the natural sandy or clay soil into a lightly enriched loam. When we first moved here, there were only a handful of trees and the soil was a rough and barren patchwork of clay, sand and peat. It took years of aggressively planting but eventually a forest developed and with that forest came an assortment of shade-loving plants, not the least of which is the lovely beautyberry. I can't remember when I discovered the first plant but I remember how excited I was to chance upon the berry's unusually colored fruit.

A few days ago when I was walking through the woods, I realized that our forest was no longer home to a solitary specimen of Callicarpa americana. Thanks to the efforts of birds and small animals, dozens of beautyberries have taken root in the forest's fertile soil. Unlike the thousands of slash pines, bamboos and assorted ornamentals that Ralph and I laboriously planted, we didn't play any part in the propagation of beautyberry bushes. Animals did the hard work for us. Armadillos, fox, wood rats and raccoons nibbled on the berries along with bobwhites, thrashers, cardinals, mockingbirds, robins, towhees and woodpeckers. The bush's abundant and long-lasting fruit is a dependable food source while some other animals, like white-tailed deer, prefer nibbling on the plant's tender leaves.

Because so many animals eat the berries and, in the process, help spread the seeds, some people think beautyberry is a nuisance weed. I'm not among them. I'm fond of volunteer plants — especially pretty ones with interesting features. I like the way they surprise me with their presence.

Although I have never done more than look at and appreciate the berries, Callicarpa americana does have medicinal and edible qualities. A tea made out of the plant's roots is purported to relieve colic, dysentery and stomachaches while old time Floridians made jelly from the extremely astringent fruit. Native Americans added fresh beautyberry leaves to sweat baths as a remedy for rheumatism and fever and some people use the bark from stems and roots to relieve itchiness.

I'm too lazy to attempt jelly making and more likely to munch on a piece of candied ginger if my stomach feels unsettled than I am to dig up a beautyberry root to make tea, but I like learning about a plant's history and the different ways it is used by people around the world. I also like watching my woods fill up with uniquely colored botanicals. The fruit of Callicarpa americana is different than any other color I have found in nature. It is not quite purple or pink but some entirely different shade. I call it passion pink, the color of excitement.

Beautyberries in autumn are an exciting addition to the changing landscape. These compact, symmetrically formed, drought-tolerant bushes are one of Florida's best excuses to take a walk in a late October woods. Callicarpa americana berries last until midwinter, when they eventually shrivel up and dry on the stems, but don't wait that long. Beautyberry fruit are at their peak right now. Visit a park or wilderness area. Go for a walk in the woods. Discover the passion this Florida wildflower inspires.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Autumn comes home to roost

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel October 12, 2009)

Seasonal indicators abound. Over the past few weeks, the goldenrain tree has burst into bloom, showering the sky with color. The deciduous tree's gold-to-coral display is one of my favorite signs that a seasonal shift is under way. Summer is on the wane. Autumn has arrived.

On the ground, stiff brown sycamore leaves have begun to gather beneath increasingly bare branches while a noticeably cooler breeze blows across the feathery faces of goldenrod plumes. Whatever bright-orange persimmons the raccoons missed now dangle from leafless branches. On loquat trees, fragrant white blossoms have emerged, promising a hefty harvest in February. And the other day, for the first time in several months, I actually had difficulty submerging myself in the lake.

"Gosh, the water has gotten cooler," I said to Ralph as we headed into the lake after being outside for a while. "I haven't had this much trouble getting in since last April."

All summer long, dipping into the silky smooth water has been as easy to do as snuggling under the covers. The lake has been a delightful escape from the intense summer heat, but now that the air temperature has dropped, the lake has cooled correspondingly. I did manage to ease my way in yesterday, but I did so with more reluctance than I'd felt in months.

I'm not complaining. The loss of one pleasure is just an opportunity for another to take its place, and my most recent delight has come from observing an osprey that I hadn't seen all summer.

I first noticed the large fish hawk on our lake last November. Throughout the fall and winter and into the spring, the white-bellied raptor perched on a bamboo pole sticking out of a submerged peat island in the middle of our lake. Every morning when I woke up, I saw the bird sitting there and, although it left during the day, it returned at dusk to spend the night on its precarious perch. The osprey became such a fixture that after a while I stopped paying attention to it. I suppose I took its presence for granted. Maybe that's why we were well into summer when I realized it was no longer there.

The summer of 2009 was so full of weddings, new babies and writing projects that I didn't have time for prolonged pondering about the osprey's whereabouts. Occasionally I wondered why it had gone away, where it went and when it would come back. I missed watching the broad-winged bird circle the lake, dive to catch fish, then devour its catch while balancing on the bamboo perch. I even missed hearing its piercing cry — the osprey's warning when I approached too close.

The day I realized it had come back was the first cool day in October. Before then, it had not occurred to me that seasonal changes had anything to do with the osprey's whereabouts. Because I was used to seeing ospreys year-round, it didn't dawn on me that some fish hawks are migratory, traveling thousands of miles annually to return to good fishing grounds.

I have no doubt that the bird that recently returned to our lake is the same osprey that was here last November. Ospreys are creatures of habit, and once a bird has claimed a suitable habitat as its own, it comes back every year.

I don't know where the osprey in my lake spent its summer, but I do know that its return is yet another indication that the seasons have changed. Autumn in Florida is a wonderful time of year, and having a resident osprey to observe only makes it better.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Work-of-art web vs. Web? Easy choice

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel October 5, 2009)

Ralph had just completed the first loop in his daily walk around the lake when he opened the door, stuck his head inside the house and called out.

"Come see this spider that has built a web in the pine woods. And bring your camera."

Not one to dally when a wildlife encounter is imminent, I pushed away from the computer, slipped into a pair of Crocs and grabbed the camera.

As we headed toward the woods, I asked, "What kind of spider is it?"

He responded with a single word: "Huge!"

Although many people are terrified by spiders, I'm not among them. Quite the contrary, I find the eight-legged creatures fascinating. I like the way spiders look, how they act, the type of structures they build and the way these patient predators capture and eventually consume their prey. On many occasions, I've asked Ralph to join me in observing a particularly beautiful specimen as it went about its bug-catching business. There are more than 700 kinds of spiders in Florida, and I have yet to see one that hasn't been interesting to watch. Knowing my enthusiasm, Ralph was eager to show me his find.

As we walked through the bamboo nursery to get to the piney woods, I paid attention to all the spiders we were passing. Arachnids seemed to be everywhere. Interwoven among plant leaves and branches were spiny orb weavers with their tiny, colorful, crablike carapaces. I saw black and yellow argiope spiders, easily identifiable by the bright white zigzag stitches in the center of their webs, long-jawed orb weavers and one green lynx spider that blended in so convincingly with the leaf it was sitting on that I almost didn't notice it.

When we approached the woods, Ralph put out an arm to stop me from walking farther.

"Look ahead," he commanded, pointing toward the shady path.

There, sitting in the middle of a magnificent web, was one of the largest spiders I had ever seen. It was a female golden silk spider, Nephila clavipes, with a body at least 3 inches long. Even more impressive than its massive size was the architectural wonder this consumer of dragonflies, moths and lizards had constructed.

Using secretions released from spinnerets attached to its abdomen, the spider had woven a silky tapestry that spanned a 12-foot-wide path. Anchored in several places to two slash pines, one on each side of the path, the intricately woven web billowed in the breeze like a gold-threaded sail. Toward the center were two spiders — the extremely large female with her bright yellow body and her much smaller, dull-colored, opposite-sex counterpart.

"Are you sure that's the male?" Ralph asked as he stepped closer to the web.

I knew it was, but my husband's doubt was justified. At first glance, the smaller spider looked more like a trapped bug than another Nephila clavipes. However, upon closer inspection, Ralph could see the resemblance. The nondescript, diminutive male hovering at the periphery of the web's hub was really a miniature version of the female. As with most invertebrates, female spiders are generally larger and more colorful than males.

We stood in the woods observing the spiders for quite a while. Although my interest was still piqued, I knew that Ralph was getting antsy and was eager to continue his walk.

"Go ahead on," I told him as I clicked off yet another picture. "I just want to take a few more shots."

Ralph isn't as patient as I am when it comes to observing nature, but neither of us has the patience of spiders. It must have taken hours for that golden silk spider to construct her amazing web. Once it was built, she had to have spent more time waiting for her golden snare to ensnarl a meal. If Ralph hadn't been so observant during the first loop of his walk around the lake, he would have walked into the web and destroyed the spider's work. Instead, his sharp eyes enabled him to avoid a sticky situation and provided me with another opportunity to observe one of nature's beauties.

If I had to choose between a spider web and the World Wide Web, it wouldn't be much of a contest. I'd push away from the computer every time to watch one of nature's most fascinating creatures spin a little magic. I just wish more people would

Monday, September 28, 2009

Ubiquitous weed is a devil to get rid of

Butterflies might like Biden alba but I sure don't!


Bidens alba is an easy plant to dislike. I haven't liked it for close to 20 years.

Also known as Spanish needle, burr marigold, cobbler's peg and (my favorite) demon spike grass, Bidens alba has mastered the art of botanic adaptability. It grows along parched strips of roadsides and disturbed earth just as easily as it does in the rich, well-irrigated soil of flower beds or lawns. Native to South America, it has spread to every continent except Antarctica. It's easy to understand why the Chinese call it xian feng cao, or "abundant weed."

In Central Florida, Bidens alba is most obvious in early autumn. By the end of September, small plants that would have been easy to dislodge earlier in the season are deeply rooted, full-size specimens, often topping out more than 3 feet tall and equally as broad.

The flower heads — small white petals surrounding orange centers — are a "nothing special" bloom, too small and irregular to be pretty and lacking a pleasant fragrance. The hairy stems have a tendency to bend over and re-root.

Flowers and seeds

After years of pulling out the offensive plants only to find myself with an itchy rash on my arm, I learned that contact with the hairy parts causes a bothersome irritation in people who have sensitive skin. That's odd, because one of the many herbal uses of Bidens alba is to crush the flower heads and rub them on insect bites to relieve irritation and swelling. Go figure.

Although I'm not wild about this plant's flowers, leaves or growth habit, what I particularly loathe are its seeds. Demon spike grass has "hitchhiker" seeds that attach themselves with unyielding tenacity to anything that brushes by. That means if you go for a walk in the woods or alongside a road where Bidens alba is growing, you will return home with dozens of these miniature barbed bayonets clinging to your shoes, shoelaces, socks, pants or skirt.

Removal is not easy. The slightly curved, rigid black spikes grab at fabric as fiercely as ticks attach themselves to skin. A comparison to ticks is not far-fetched. Another common name for Bidens alba is beggar's tick, a reference to the seed-covered clothing of hobos walking along railroad tracks.

Nasty barbed Biden seeds stick to anything they touch

All too often, Ralph has come in from working outside with his white crew socks skewered by the black seeds. Picking off the seeds is a tedious, profanity-inducing process, but it shows why this plant is so widely distributed. Wild animals, birds, domesticated pets and livestock have inadvertently transported demon spike grass around the planet.

With so much going against it, I was surprised to learn that instead of despising this invasive weed, people in some cultures actually appreciate it. Sub-Saharan Africans eat the fresh, tender young leaves as a vegetable, while Ugandans prefer their leaves boiled in sour milk. In Mexico, the seeds find new life as a stimulating substitute for tea, while Filipinos make wine out of the flowers.

A basket filled with freshly picked Spanish needle leaves gathered for its antibacterial properties 

All parts of the plant — roots, leaves and seeds — have herbal properties. Bidens alba purportedly has antibacterial, anti-dysenteric, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antimalarial properties. It is even under study for anticancer characteristics. Although few Floridians know it as anything but a noxious weed, many of us have noticed its popularity among butterflies. It is the preferred food source of the Gulf fritillary, orange long wing and zebra long wing.

Common Buckeye Butterfly on Bidens alba bloom (above) and Gulf fritillary (below)

After learning about its many uses, I figured I should re-evaluate my feelings for Bidens alba. I thought about its use as a medicinal herb, a food source, a butterfly attraction and livestock fodder. I considered its potential in the fight against cancer.

I tried to like it. I really did.

In the end, the best I can do is to admire its tenacity and accept its presence. Despite the plant's attributes, I still see demon spike grass for what it mainly is: a seedy hitchhiker on the horticultural highway of life. Ah, well, no one says you have to like everything.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Life lessons not taught at college

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel September 21, 2009)

My 17-year-old son recently moved into his first apartment, a two-bedroom, two-bathroom condo close to the University of Central Florida. He's sharing the unit with a 20-year-old roommate who is living away from her family for the first time, too.

My precocious, chess-playing, math-loving youngest child couldn't wait to be off on his own. His eagerness to live independent of his increasingly annoying parents had become more and more difficult for him to suppress during the months preceding the move. His patience with King Rhetorical and Queen Hysteria (as he so lovingly labeled us) had decidedly waned. Like a puppy straining at the leash, he was ready for the tether to be unclipped. If truth be told, his father and I were ready, too. After 29 years of sharing our household with children, we were anticipating our own form of freedom. What we didn't anticipate was how entertaining it would be to watch our final child feel his way down the dimly lighted hallway of adulthood.

The entertainment began when I woke one morning shortly after Toby moved into his apartment and checked my Facebook page. On it was an entry posted by my son: "[I] learned today that trying to cook a grilled cheese sandwich on an electric stove on the highest heat isn't a good idea," his understated announcement read.

Let me step back a bit here to explain that Toby makes an excellent omelet. Like his three older siblings, my youngest offspring is comfortable in a kitchen. However, despite a familiarity with meal preparations, and even though omelets are his specialty, he had never (until he moved into his own home) cooked on anything except a gas burner.

"Yeah, grilled cheese and high heat are so not meant for each other," one of his Facebook friends responded.

I couldn't stop laughing. Levity continued a few days later when he called with a question.

"What does it mean when a banana starts to leak some sort of liquid?" he asked.

Struggling to quell a roaring tide of laughter, I answered as matter-of-factly as possible: "It means the banana has started to rot. You're going to find that some foods, like bananas, tomatoes and other soft-fleshed fruit, spoil quickly, especially in the summer, so don't buy more than you can eat in a couple of days."

Shortly after the banana incident, I stopped by his apartment to drop off his cell phone. Our son, who often chides us for forgetting things, had left his phone at home when he visited the previous weekend. I should mention that the reason he came home that weekend was to retrieve his phone's charger, an item he had forgotten to pack when he moved out.

While I was there, Toby asked if we could go together to get a shower curtain. He said he had taken a shower that morning even though the bathroom did not yet have a shower curtain.

"The floor got really wet," he explained.

What a surprise!

The shower experience led to a laundry dilemma that we heard about after I had returned home that evening.

"Hi, Mama," my beloved progeny began. "I'm trying to do laundry, and I think the washing machine might be broken."

"Just a second, let me get your father," I said as I handed the telephone to the fixer in our household of all things mechanical.

"What's the problem?" Ralph asked.

Our son explained that he had put in the dirty laundry and detergent, turned the dial to the appropriate setting and pulled it to start but nothing happened.

"No water comes out," he reported. His father and I shared a knowing look.

"Look on the wall right behind the washer," Ralph patiently explained. "Do you see a couple of valves? Turn the one on the right — that's the cold-water valve — all the way to the left and then try it. Is it working now?"

How about that! It worked.

Ralph and I may be old and forgetful. Our hearing might not be as sharp as it used to be, and we do have a tendency to go on and on when all that's needed is a simple explanation. However, somewhere along the line we managed to accumulate knowledge — a fair amount of good, old-fashioned practical knowledge. That gives us the power (every now and then) to amaze one of humankind's most difficult-to-impress creatures — a 17-year-old man-child.

"Thanks, Mama. Thanks, Papa," Toby said, as he concluded the phone call. "I love you."

The feeling is mutual.