Monday, September 27, 2010

Ginger plant's fragrant liquid makes it a useful beauty

The plant's red bract resembles a pine cone

Simply Living
Zingiber zerumbet is a real attention-getter.

Better known as pinecone ginger or shampoo ginger, this perennial beauty sports cone-shaped structures called bracts that change from a light green to a bright, commanding red in late summer and early autumn. By late September, the cones are almost all red — a shape and color that stand out against the ginger's long, green, bladelike foliage.

When I'm walking with customers through our bamboo nursery, where patches of ginger flourish in the shade beneath tall bamboos, people often ask, "What's that plant?"

"It's a type of ginger," I explain as I squat next to a stand of the yard-tall beauties. "If you squeeze the soft, red cones, a clear, fragrant liquid oozes out."

At that point, I usually put my hand around one of the pine-cone-shaped bracts, which causes the liquid to escape.

"Want to try it?" I ask. "It's not sticky, and it has a mild spicy fragrance that smells lovely."

People seldom take me up on the offer. Perhaps they're afraid the liquid will stain (it won't) or sting (it doesn't). For whatever reason, their reticence prevents them from sampling one of nature's finest body-care products. For centuries, indigenous people in Asia and Hawaii have used the liquid from Zingiber zerumbet as a shampoo, hair conditioner and body wash. Contemporary manufacturers even incorporate it into commercial shampoos.

I've never washed my hair with pinecone ginger, but I have often applied the clear, slightly sudsy fluid directly to my skin. When I'm hot and sweaty, I find it refreshing to rub a handful of the ginger-scented liquid on my body. Although the fluid is absorbed almost instantly, the fragrance lingers to provide a gentle pick-me-up.

Zingiber zerumbet is a perennial plant that develops from underground rhizomes. The tan, papery tubers form "eyes" from which shoots appear in the spring. Throughout the warm months, those shoots develop into tall stalks that support long leaves fanning out on opposite sides of the stem.

The pine-cone-shaped bracts appear later on separate, slightly shorter stalks. As the season progresses, one to three flowers — small, yellow-white blooms — poke out of the bracts. If you place your nose close to the flowers, you'll notice a spicy aroma. There's something exotic and enticing about the smell. The scent alone is invigorating.

Pinecone ginger doesn't last through the winter. Every year when temperatures dip, the leaves turn brown, shrivel up and die. That's the time to snip off the dead foliage, add a blanket of mulch or soil supplements and leave the plant alone. Unless you want more gingers. In that case, winter is a good time to dig up some of the underground rhizomes to replant elsewhere.

Pinecone ginger grows well in full to partial shade. It tolerates drought but also does well in moist locations. I've found that rhizomes growing in unimproved soil without irrigation are decidedly smaller and slower to bloom than those planted in rich, irrigated soil. When winter is over, the underground rhizomes respond quickly. Ginger shoots poke through the ground and rapidly grow to their full height of about 3 feet soon after temperatures warm.

I'm fond of easy-to-grow plants with multiple functions, and Zingiber zerumbet is certainly that. It not only looks pretty, smells lovely and has an eye-catching bract, it also produces a fragrant liquid that can be used directly from the plant as a body-care product. Whether known as pinecone ginger, shampoo ginger or by its Hawaiian name, awapuhi, there's no denying that Zingiber zerumbet is a botanical zinger.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Couple's cross-country bike trip was an adventure in tandem

Jenny and Brett Constantine celebrate their accomplishment after dipping the front tire of their tandem recumbent bicycle in the ocean along the Oregon coast.

Simply Living

(First appeared September 19, 2010)

"We're home!" my daughter called to tell me.

On Sept. 7, after 91 days and 4,380.1 miles, Jenny and her husband, Brett, completed their cross-country bike trip and flew back to New England. I first wrote about their adventure June 7, the day before they mounted their tandem recumbent bicycle and pedaled away from their home in Florence, Mass.

In June, Jenny and Brett began an odyssey that took them through 12 states and one Canadian province. They rode up and down mountains, through lush farmland, hot desert, tiny towns and small cities. They averaged almost 50 miles a day, with an average speed of about 10 mph. Although they mainly traveled on scenic secondary roads, they occasionally ventured alongside speeding trucks on major highways as well as over gravelly side roads and vehicle-free bike trails.

A number of mechanical breakdowns occurred during their trip. They replaced their bicycle computer three times and changed four flat tires and more than a dozen tire tubes. The only physical ailment was Brett's knee, which became painful after the first days. A knee brace and frequent stretches kept the pain at bay, and by the time they reached the state of Washington, my son-in-law was able to pedal painlessly without a brace.

Although they mainly stayed in campgrounds, their accommodations also included a couple of hostels, three overnights in the homes and yards of people they met along the way, a few stealth campsites and three stays with members of the bicycling network called

Only on seven occasions did they indulge in the luxury of a motel room. One of those occasions was Day 20 outside Sandusky, Mich. After biking for 40 miles through one downpour after another, Jenny and Brett were ready for a night of comfort. They chose a motel that offered a biker's discount, pulled their 45-pound riding machine into the room, spread their wet items out to dry and took showers before preparing a delicious dinner on their camp stove.

"It felt really good to have a big bed to spread out on, in a dry room, out of the rain," Jenny wrote that night on their blog, PlayAlways.

Thanks to their online journal, staying connected was easy. A lightweight netbook and digital camera enabled the pair to capture images and keep friends, family and acquaintances well informed.

"It does my mother-heart good to know where and how you are!" Brett's mother, Kathy Ruseckas of Leyden, Mass., commented on the blog.

I couldn't have agreed more. The blog was both comforting and exciting to follow. The pictures and travel descriptions were so compelling that I often felt like I was along for the ride. I loved seeing all the different kinds of wildflowers they saw along the roads. I found the varied landscapes they passed fascinating and the sunsets beautiful. They saw so much wildlife.

"We loved seeing so many birds of prey in every state, especially once we left the Northeast. In the Midwest, we saw several hawks on telephone poles just about every day. We even saw a couple bald eagles! Farther west, we saw prairie dogs and a large rattlesnake in Montana. In Idaho, we saw two moose! When we got to the Pacific, we were lucky enough to spot whales," Jenny wrote in an e-mail.

Other animal sightings included beavers, foxes, kingfishers, pelicans, raccoons, skunks, butterflies, groundhogs, songbirds, great blue herons and, of course, hundreds of deer.

"Seeing so many animals was one of our favorite things about our summer on a bicycle," Jenny said.

Although they expected to see wildlife when biking, a couple of animal sightings gave them pause. On Day 50 they passed a zebra grazing in a field outside Plevna, Mont., and on Day 67, when they were just over 3,300 miles into their trip, they spotted a camel. A solitary dromedary was sauntering over the arid ground outside Walla Walla, Wash.

While I envied much of their adventure, I'm glad I wasn't there to experience the mosquitoes and flies. Hordes of bugs were a daily annoyance. Bugs bit while they biked and when they were setting up camp. Many nights were a struggle to eat and sleep bug-free.

When I asked Jenny and Brett what they missed most about being away from home they said: "We missed friends and family most, but also being able to shop for more than a meal or two at a time in the stores. Sometimes, we missed having a place to escape the elements or the bugs."

To me, escaping the elements and bugs would have topped the list.

Food was a frequent focus of their daily reports. They stuffed themselves on berries found along the road — blueberries, blackberries, red raspberries and blackcaps — and in Michigan's Upper Peninsula they were introduced to the meat pies known as pasties. They picked figs in Portland, Ore., ripe plums in Idaho and cherries in Ontario. When they pedaled to the top of their last mountain pass and crossed the border into Idaho, they celebrated by eating a small watermelon they had carried up the mountain.

I'm proud of Jenny and Brett for dreaming big and accomplishing their goal. More important, I'm proud of all the kindness and consideration they bestowed on each other. Anyone with willpower can rack up miles, but it takes a special type of person to withstand difficulties with compassion and patience. Jenny and Brett sang songs as they pedaled across the country. They laughed often and made time for play. "Playalways" is not just the name of their blog, it is a personal philosophy that will serve them well in their many journeys to come.

Monday, September 13, 2010

London plane trees offer first sign autumn is near

The changing colors of the London plane tree leaves is one of the first signs in Central Florida that autumn is on the way
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel September 13, 2010)

My interest in London plane trees began during my childhood in Yardley, Pa. Huge London planes encircled a large house on my street, and I enjoyed picking up round seedpods from the ground and breaking them apart with my fingers. The symmetrical shape of those trees appealed to my developing sense of aesthetics, as did the trees' multicolored peeling bark.

I'm still interested in London plane trees, but over the years my reasons have changed. In Florida, this hybrid of the American sycamore and Oriental plane tree is one of the earliest signs of autumn. Of all the trees that grow in the central part of the Sunshine State, London planes are among the first to change color. Although sometimes a bit of yellow appears, most of the large, star-shaped leaves go directly from green to brown. It's not a showy display, but it's an obvious indication that summer is waning.

This year, the first leaves to change color weren't the ones on my own London plane trees but on a row of trees outlining a nearby building. Not far from my home is an industrial complex with several London plane trees. Plane trees are a popular choice in residential and commercial locations because, in addition to being fast-growing, they tolerate an extraordinary amount of abuse.

These 80- to 100-foot-tall behemoths can handle exposure to air pollution, reflected heat, smoke, dust, soot, wind and heavy pruning. They can even tolerate pavement covering their broad, spreading roots. The leaves on the trees in the industrial park turned brown several weeks before my own did. Soil and water conditions trigger leaf change, which means that trees in drier, less fertile soil tend to lose their leaves sooner than those growing in richer, moister conditions.

Despite its many favorable qualities, the London plane tree has negative characteristics as well. Many people consider it a "dirty" tree because so many large, leathery leaves litter the ground in the fall. The seedpods also create what some consider unattractive debris. Its height, while a positive feature in some situations, becomes a problem when it's planted in the wrong place, such as beneath utility wires. The tree's root system presents even more problems. The strong, broad roots can interfere with sewers, damage sidewalks and cause problems with building foundations.

A few years ago, when I was still infatuated with the tree's symmetrical shape, peeling bark and rapid growth, I made the mistake of planting a London plane tree about 15 feet from our house. In less than four years, the seedling, planted in rich, irrigated soil, grew 40 feet tall and almost as broad.

It was around that time my infatuation with London plane trees began to fade.

I grew tired of all the leaves it dropped every year. I didn't like the way the roots — many growing right at the surface — spread in every direction. They limited my use of the ground beneath the tree and grew perilously close to the house's foundation and walkways.

After some coaxing (after all, I had previously persuaded my husband to plant the tree there in the first place), we solved the problem by cutting the tree down. There's another London plane tree in our front yard, but it's farther away from the house and not as much of a bother.

Because I remember London plane trees from my youth, they will always have a place in my heart. But these days, instead of appreciating them as an element of the landscape, I like them for way they indicate seasonal shifts. The weather in Central Florida may still be hovering in the 80s, but by looking at the line of London plane trees growing down the road from my house, I know that autumn is almost here.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Gray squirrels have a taste for the finest in figs

Small squirrel...large fig

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel September 5, 2010)

Bushy-tailed bandits are stealing Ralph's figs.

The abundant crop that started in July slacked off in early August, when temperatures climbed and rainfall lessened. Now, as a new month begins, our assorted fig trees, especially the ones closest to the house, are yielding one final burst of plenty. It is a harvest that my fig-loving husband is eager to tap.

Unfortunately, he is not alone in his quest for the sweet-tasting, soft-skinned fruit. A band of gray squirrels also has noticed this emergent second flush. Squirrels may be small, but they are extremely agile and clever animals. Their walnut-sized brains are adept at finding the biggest, best-tasting fruit before my husband is even aware that a fig has ripened.

Although gray squirrels are ubiquitous throughout the country, they didn't always live on our property. When we purchased the land in 1991, it was mainly open fields. We had no squirrels because we there were no abundant sources of food. A gray squirrel's diet consists mainly of seeds, nuts, berries, fruit and the inner bark of trees. Without a forest or a neighborhood of shade trees, a squirrel's chance of finding a steady supply of edibles is limited.

That changed as the trees we planted over the next few years developed. I recall wondering how long we'd manage to avoid discovery. The answer: not too long after the seedlings matured. As soon as the young oak trees developed into acorn-producing machines, a family of gray squirrels moved onto the property to claim it.

At first, they were cute. I enjoyed watching their antics as white-bellied bundles of fur sat on their haunches munching seeds and twitching their fluffy tails.

Squirrels belong to the order Rodentia, which includes the less lovable mice and rats. Like rats and other rodents, squirrels reproduce prolifically. Female gray squirrels have two litters of two to six offspring every year. After six months, the offspring are sexually mature and are ready to produce their own litters. Because gray squirrels can live up to 12 years in the wild, it's easy to see how quickly a single pair can develop into a vibrant community of acorn-nibbling, seed-crunching, fig-snatching varmints.

The squirrels that are stealing our figs are brazen. One day when Ralph and I went out to do some picking, a squirrel was already on the tree. Instead of scurrying away, as I expected it to do when we approached, the squirrel stood his ground. With four feet firmly planted on the tree's trunk, its head up and tail down, the squirrel seemed to be saying, "I got here first. Go away. Leave me alone."

Of course, we didn't.

"Shoo! Get out of here!" my husband shouted as he rustled leaves and shook branches. In this particular contest of wills, score one for the humans. The squirrel jumped to the ground and scampered off into the forest.

We may have won that round, but I have a feeling that if an accurate tally were taken, the squirrels would come out ahead. In competitions between people and nature, nature has a tendency to reign triumphant.

Perhaps that's how it should be. Figs are a wonderful addition to our diet, but we don't depend on them for our sustenance. When we're hungry, we go to the grocery store. Little gray squirrels don't have that option. They depend on foraging for whatever food they can find.

The lucky squirrels in our yard are dining on fat, juicy figs. From Ralph's perspective, they may be bushy-tailed bandits, but I have to admit: For thieves, they have very good taste.