Monday, May 31, 2010

Passionflower is useful as well as beautiful

Sprawling plant provides fruit and juice while attracting wildlife

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel May 31, 2010)

May has been a warm, wet month — perfect weather for one of Florida's most versatile plants, Passiflora incarnate.

Commonly called passionflower, maypop or apricot vine, this Florida native is completely edible – leaves, roots, flowers and egg-shaped fruit. The plant has a number of medicinal properties and herbal qualities, including calming nerves and acting as a natural sedative. The Food and Drug Administration includes passionflower on its GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) list, and in Germany it has been officially approved to combat "nervous unrest" since 1985.

But that's not why I like the passionflower. I like this plant because it's pretty and attracts wildlife.

Passionflowers provide nectar to bees, hummingbirds, hummingbird moths and quite a few butterflies. It also acts as a larva host to the Gulf fritillary, variegated fritillary and zebra longwing butterflies. The most common passionflower — and the one growing wild where I live — is light purple with a yellow-green center.

This low-growing, sprawling plant has an extensive root system. In sandy, dry woods and fields, passionflowers tend to behave themselves. Occasionally they will stretch up a tree trunk or climb through shrubby branches, but most of the time the flowering vine creeps along the forest floor, dotting the pine needle and leaf litter with its fancy, round blossoms. On our property, hundreds of individual plants emerged in May when rain came down and temperatures rose.

Wild passionflowers become more wayward when introduced to the home landscape. When I lived in Kissimmee, I intentionally transplanted a single wild passionflower vine into an irrigated garden bed filled with enriched soil. My hope was that the pretty, purple-flowered vine would climb a trellis set against the house to provide a colorful display.

Reminder to self: Be careful what you wish for. The vine climbed the trellis, then proceeded to twirl its tenacious tendrils around the exterior siding as it crept up the wall, over windows and onto the roof.

I no longer attempt to domesticate Passiflora incarnate, enjoying it instead in its natural state as an undergrowth plant in forests and open fields. The face of a passionflower bloom is intricate and lovely. The round, flat flower resembles an eye. Blossoms are about 3 inches wide, with a thin, wavy layer of fringe atop broader, two-tone purple petals. In the center, showy yellow stamens surround a pale green pistil. Although blooms last only a day, new flowers appear daily.

Because individual blossoms have such a short life, these pretty wildflowers aren't the best choice for bouquets. They are, however, functional plants worthy of admiration. Native Americans made a poultice of passionflower roots to relieve inflammations, earaches, boils and cuts, while in Central America, the Incas brewed leaves for tonic and applied crushed leaves to bruises.

In the United States today, the most commonly used part of the passionflower plant is not its leaves or roots but its fruit. The size and shape of a duck egg, the green fruit turns yellow as it matures. Break open a ripe passion fruit and inside are gooey sacks of sweet-tartness. Much to Ralph's amazement and, dare I say, disgust (he doesn't like the taste at all), I like to suck the syrup out of passionfruit while we're taking walks around the lake.

These days, passion fruit juice is all the rage. Welch's is one of many companies that have tapped into consumer demand for this rich, flavorful source of potassium and vitamins A and C. Those same nutrients also make it an important component in cosmetic products such as shampoo, lotions and creams.

I'm always glad when wildflowers receive the attention they deserve. The passionflower may be a lowly plant, but this determined vine has crept its way out of the fields and woods and into our everyday lives.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Plentiful harvest is tasty and peachy keen

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel May 24, 2010)

My kitchen pantry looks peachy, and I mean that in the most literal way. I recently rearranged items on the pantry shelves to provide ripening room for our first substantial crop of nectarines and peaches.

This year's abundant harvest is the result of my oldest son's efforts. Three years ago, Timmy planted a small orchard on our property, but he moved out of state before the trees became productive. Although he is not here to sample them, his father and I have been enjoying the fruits of his labor. Thanks to our son, we've been picking fuzzy-skinned peaches and smooth red nectarines by the bucketful — and what a delightful treat they've been.

Last year was the first that the trees produced fruit. Because the initial crop was small, we picked only a few, thinking it would be better to let the rest ripen a bit more before we collected them. That was a mistake. Unbeknown to us, other residents of the property — those of the four-legged, furry-skinned variety — were also keeping an eye on the fruit trees.

The day after our small first harvest, we discovered the entire orchard picked clean. All the peaches and nectarines — ripe or not — had vanished. Whoever the culprits were — raccoons, possums, squirrels or some other hungry critter — they made fast work of our fruit.

Determined not to make the same mistake twice, Ralph and I began gathering this year's crop just before the fruit approached maturity. We walked to the orchard with empty buckets and returned home with containers overflowing. I couldn't believe how much we gathered.

Citrus is the first thing that comes to mind when people think of Central Florida, but stone fruits such as peaches, nectarines and plums are among the many other edibles that flourish in the Florida sun. The University of Georgia, University of Florida and Louisiana State University have all developed varieties specifically for a Southern climate. I don't know which varieties my son planted, but whichever they were, they've managed to thrive despite minimal care.

Before Timmy planted anything, he first dug large holes, removed all the sandy soil and replaced it with a rich mixture of composted manure and peat. That was a smart move because peaches, plums and nectarines prefer a rich, well-drained soil. These relatively small trees — they top out around 15 feet — don't need irrigation or pesticides, but their roots like to spread into nutrient-rich soil.

I'd like to say that Ralph and I did a good job maintaining Timmy's trees, but the reality is we ignored them. It wasn't until they began to bloom — lovely, fragrant pink blossoms emerged toward the end of March — that I paid them any notice.

There are many reasons to plant fruit trees. Homegrown fruit — although it may not be as large or picture- perfect as store-bought fruit — is almost always more flavorful. It is definitely fresher, fun to grow and educational. Perhaps most important, when you grow food yourself, you know exactly what you're eating. That's seldom the case with produce purchased at groceries.

In 2008, the U.S. Department of Agriculture tested imported peaches en route to American stores. The tests showed that more than 50 pesticide compounds appeared on the peaches, including five that exceeded Environmental Protection Agency limits and six banned in the United States.

Analysts at the non-profit Environmental Working Group came to a similar conclusion. They studied 43 fruits and vegetables and found peaches to have the highest amount of pesticide residue. Nectarines ranked fifth. The organization based its rankings on 43,000 tests conducted by the Agriculture Department over a four-year period.

Information of this sort can be so upsetting that it might make you want to stop eating peaches entirely or, at the very least, wash produce thoroughly before it is eaten. Alternatively, you can switch to organic produce or — better yet — set aside a little space in your yard to grow your own.

As parents, we consider it our responsibility to feed our children and provide them with long-lasting sustenance. How lovely it is when a child returns the favor. The orchard our son planted on our property three years ago is a gift we'll enjoy for years. Timmy may have moved away, but with each juicy bite, he's right here in my thoughts.

Monday, May 17, 2010

A new look at an ancient food

 Vats of fresh bean curd can still be found in ethnic food stores

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel May 17, 2010)

When I say "tofu," what comes to mind?

If your answer is "a strange-looking, foreign-sounding food," then chances are you probably don't have packages of bean curd stacked in your fridge.

Although it has been an essential part of Asian diets for more than 2,000 years, tofu wasn't commercially available in Western markets until the mid-1960s. Since then, this highly versatile, nutritious food has risen slowly but steadily in popularity.

Tofu has eased its way into mainstream American culture over the past five decades, thanks in large part to books such as Frances Moore Lappé's
Diet for a Small Planet, first published in 1971, and The Book of Tofu by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi, which appeared in 1975.

Ralph and I owned a natural-food store in Wellfleet, Mass., when these authors were encouraging a generation of young adults to explore more healthful ways of eating. At that time, anyone who wanted to try tofu had two choices: They could buy it at a natural food store or make it themselves.

Packed away in our attic is a wooden tofu-making kit. Made by Larry Needleman in 1976 and based on designs from
The Book of Tofu, the soybean press was a popular item during that burgeoning period of do-it-yourself food preparation. Although we owned the kit, we seldom used it, relying instead on the fresh tofu we sold in our store.

Our store was on Cape Cod, and to supply our customers (and our own family) with the tofu we wanted to eat, Ralph and I traveled to Boston. We took a four-hour round trip at least once a week in our station wagon to buy several five-gallon containers of freshly made bean curd from a tofu maker in that city's Chinatown. We brought the containers back to Wellfleet and sold the cubes, still floating in the watery brine, by the piece to eager customers.

Stepping into that tofu shop was like walking into another world. Steam rose over vats of boiling soybeans as an aged tofu maker stirred the mixture with a long wooden paddle. The floor was wet, English was barely spoken, receipts were scratched on soggy pieces of paper, and the tofu was incredibly fresh and flavorful.

Anyone who has ever tasted tofu knows it is not notable for its remarkable flavor. Tofu is a bland food that picks up and absorbs the essence of other, more distinctive-tasting seasonings and spices. However, the tofu from that old Chinese tofu maker had a taste sensation all its own. Ralph has fond memories of driving home from Boston while devouring one fresh cake of tofu after another. I can't say that I did the same, but I have always enjoyed incorporating tofu into our family's diet.

In our house, we usually eat tofu at least once a day. As I sit in my office writing this column, our dinner of roasted vegetables and tofu is cooking in the oven. When tofu is not being roasted together with onions, garlic, zucchini, carrots, broccoli and whatever other vegetables are handy, I often sauté thick slices of it in a cast-iron pan that has been lightly coated with olive oil and seasoned with freshly squeezed garlic. Sometimes I make lasagna, using an entire cube of crumbled tofu in place of cheese.

The use of tofu is not limited to main-course menus. One of my favorite ways to enjoy tofu is as a dessert we call tofu cream. To make it, I put into a blender about a cup of liquid — sometimes I use fruit juice and sometimes soy milk — add a banana broken into pieces, an entire cake of tofu crumbled up and about a quarter-cup of honey or agave. If stevia is used instead of honey or agave, one teaspoon of powdered stevia is enough to sweeten the mixture. When blended together, tofu cream has the consistency and taste of pudding.

Tofu is a heart-friendly food. It is an excellent source of protein, high in iron and calcium and low in calories, and it contains no cholesterol.

If you haven't tried it, don't be scared by its foreign-sounding name. Pick up a cake at your local grocery and experiment with one of the many recipes available online for this versatile, nutritious and historically important food.

Monday, May 10, 2010

A mother's love is universal

 Cardinal nest in Angel Mist bamboo

I love finding bird nests, and this week I found two — a cardinal nest and one built by a pair of wood thrushes.

The thrushes built their nest about 4 feet off the ground in a thick, branchy clump of Sunburst bamboo. The green-striped, yellow-caned bamboo is growing close to a wooden post that the thrushes use as a combination landing strip and lookout post.

Whenever the birds return with food to feed their hungry nestlings (and they do that all day long!), they always stop first at the post, pausing just long enough to look around and assess the safety of the situation before flying into the bamboo thicket and providing their offspring with a tasty meal.

That's how I discovered their nest. I was in the nursery and spotted the wood thrush
standing on the post with a beak full of something. Watching from a distance, I saw the bird leave the post and fly into the bamboo. He (or she — both parents help feed their offspring) stayed awhile before flying off again in search of more food.

A little later, I walked over to the clump of Sunburst and discovered three down-covered babies sitting quietly in their tucked-away home. I was careful not to get too close because I didn't want my human presence to limit their chances of survival.

The cardinals also have chosen a clump of bamboo in which to build their nest. Unlike thrushes, which prefer a low-lying location, the bright red male and his less flashy mate have anchored their bowl-shaped structure quite high in the branches of Angel Mist bamboo.

Either I had been particularly unobservant or the cardinals' building skills were especially efficient, but it seemed that the nest appeared out of nowhere. I spend considerable time in the bamboo nursery taking customers on tours, and my route always passes the bamboo where the cardinals built their nest. But until now I had no idea it was there.

Like the wood thrush, the female cardinal builds the nest while her partner stays nearby to watch for danger. Once the nest is completed — and that takes three to nine days — the female will begin to lay eggs and will stay on her clutch of two to five eggs until they hatch a little less than two weeks later. Because of the location — suspended from branches about 12 feet in the air — I was unable to tell how many eggs there are or whether they have hatched. Once a nest is used, neither cardinal nor wood thrush returns to raise another clutch.

Finding bird nests always brings me joy. There's magic in the way a small animal without hands can fashion a beautiful, secure home out of twigs, pine needles, mud and bits of leaves. Using only their beaks to carry building material and their bodies to shape the structure, birds manage to create habitats that are not just functional but architecturally beautiful.

While the Mother's Day tributes of the past weekend are still fresh in our minds, we shouldn't forget that human beings are not the only ones to benefit from maternal love. The baby birds that hatched from eggs laid in a carefully built nest, the tiny bunnies that snuggle in a fur-lined hole, the armadillos born in a burrow are all here because they had mothers who cared enough to find secure places to raise their progeny.

Making sacrifices is what mothers do. It doesn't matter if you're a human being who gives up sleep to tend to the needs of a crying newborn or a mama cardinal that won't leave her nest — not even for food — until all her eggs have hatched. Being a mother means being willing to give of yourself to help your children. How lucky we all are to be the result of a mother's love.

Monday, May 3, 2010

All you need is love...unconditional love

 Amber, Sherry, Jenny in 2008

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel May 3, 2010)
This year will be my 30th Mother's Day. It will be the first for my oldest daughter, whose son was born last July. Unfortunately, 2010 is the first year my husband will be without his mother, who died in February at age 93.

Mother's Day has always been a bittersweet holiday for me. My own mother is still alive, but she suffers from Alzheimer's and lives in a nursing home in South Florida. Even when she was well, our relationship was rocky because our expectations about life were always so different.

When parent and child do not share the concept of unconditional love, conflicts are bound to arise. I did my best over the years to stay close. I tried to be the daughter my parents expected me to be while staying true to myself. That proved to be a difficult – if not impossible – path to follow.

The good thing about bad relationships is that they can teach us how
not to be. When I began to have children, I was determined not to be like my mother. I wasn't naïve enough to think I wouldn't make mistakes — I just didn't want to make the same mistakes my mother made with me.

I wanted my children to grow up feeling loved no matter how they looked, what work they did, how many times they changed jobs or with whom they chose to share their life. It was important to me that my children feel not only accepted but also treasured, respected and appreciated for their individuality.

For the most part, I've succeeded. My four children have put my parenting philosophy to the test on multiple occasions, but we've all managed to survive those challenges with our relationships intact. Our clashes have not resulted in prolonged silences or seething rage, throbbing aches or irreparable damage. I like my children, and it appears they like me back.

Liking one another is such a simple concept, it should be a given. Unfortunately, it's not. Parent and child may love each other — that's automatic — but liking each other is another matter. Liking someone takes work, respect and a willingness to relinquish responsibilities and relax roles.

This year I'm reaping the dividends of my parenting efforts. Not only am I watching my oldest child, Amber, turn into a loving, kind and patient mother, I recently received an essay written by my daughter Jenny in which she put into words her own feelings about our mother-child relationship.

Jenny wrote:

"I feel a lot like my mother these days. It hits me the most when the phone rings — as it does so frequently — and I am quick to answer it with that professional, upbeat tone in my voice: 'Hello, this is Jenny.' It's just the way my mother answers the phone. Actually, it would be difficult to tell us apart, with the exception of the name, of course.

"Each day I put on one hat and take off another. This happens many times throughout the day. Ever since I was young, my mother proclaimed herself to be 'a wearer of many hats.' When I was little, I always thought this meant that she liked hats and that she had many different kinds that she wore. Though she did have an awful lot of hats, now that I'm grown up I know what she really meant.

"It's 8:30 in the morning, and I am on the phone answering questions about an apartment we have for rent. Next, I am talking to a cleaning client who wants to reschedule an appointment. As the day continues, I switch hats to become a nanny. I have a paper due in the morning that I haven't written yet, and when I get home, there is dinner to make and laundry to take in and fold. It's getting dark, and I'm finally home and so is my husband. A quick kiss as we push open the door and set our bags down. My phone rings. 'Yes, I'd be glad to give you more information about the apartment.'

"I feel a lot like my mother these days. I wonder as I'm falling asleep if we really do eventually all turn into our parents.

"I think it wouldn't be so bad if I did. My mother has the prettiest smile and is one of the nicest people I know. But, just to make sure I stay a little different, sometimes I let the phone ring without answering it. Whoever it is can leave a message. I'll call them back later."

I've always admired women who stayed close to their adult children. Years ago, when I became a mother, I hoped that over time my children and I would grow together rather than apart. My wish has come true, and I couldn't be more grateful. People can buy any number of Mother's Day presents, but the best gift of all is unconditional love.