Monday, February 27, 2012

One tree - many visitors

Zebra longwing butterflies are among the wildlife attracted to nectar-producing bottlebrush blooms.

Simply Living
February 27, 2012

A bouquet of bottlebrush blooms is sitting on my kitchen counter. The red, bristly flower spikes add a bit of brightness at a time of the year when most plants are just beginning to awaken from their winter rest.

A flurry of butterflies, hummingbirds and bees hovered over the pendulous blooms as I snipped a few flowers from low-hanging branches. The nectar-covered blossoms attract so much attention from the buzzing and fluttering crowd I had to be extra careful when making my selections, not to get in the way of any stinging insects.

The bottlebrush's long blooming season adds to its popularity among people as well as wildlife. Although this woody shrub is native to Australia, it thrives in Central and South Florida's warm climate growing in all but the most alkaline soils. It tolerates dry, moist and even salt spray locations. Although susceptible to freezes, bottlebrush recovers quickly. During the last four winters — three of which were unusually chilly — cold damage was limited and each of the trees recovered without affecting the next season's bloom.

Bottlebrushes are compact trees rarely exceeding 20 feet in height. Their diminutive size makes them a fine choice for small, tight spaces. Many people also choose them because of their weeping willow-like shape, but bottlebrushes have something willows don't have — flowers. For most of the year, the tree is adorned with 4- to 6-inch-long cylindrical flower spikes.

A bottlebrush's floral display is quite the sight. Bright red flowers dangle from the ends of each of the tree's many thin, swaying branches. From afar, the blooms — which really do resemble bristly brushes used to clean a bottle's narrow neck — look like one long tube-shaped flower. Actually, each spike is composed of many individual flowers. Sweet nectar — the calling card for butterflies, bees, wasps and birds — forms on the tips of red, needle-thin filaments along with yellow pollen, and every flower contains clusters of filaments. Whenever I gather the red blooms for a bouquet they sparkle with droplets of nectar.

About twice a year, I give my bottlebrush trees a trim, a process not unlike cutting hair. Using hand-held clippers, I do my best to even out unruly growth. My aim is to prune the hanging branches to form a straight line just above head height so I can walk under them easily. It's not a difficult task and only takes a few minutes. Trimming low-hanging branches is the only care we give our trees. We don't fertilize them or treat with chemicals. The two trees in our yard receive a bit of irrigation when the lawn is watered but the young saplings that sprung up on their own do just fine on rainwater alone.

A bottlebrush tree is in the genus Callistemon, one of 34 species in the same family as melaleuca trees. Melaleuca is on the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council's list of highly invasive exotic plants (Category 1). The weeping bottlebrush tree (Callistemon viminalis), is listed as a Category 2 (less invasive) plant for South Florida but it is not considered an invasive species in the central part of the state. In the 15 years since we planted our two bottlebrush trees, only three volunteer saplings have appeared on our property.

In addition to colorful filaments, clusters of brown bead-like seeds form on each flower spike. When I'm out collecting plants for a dried flower bouquet, I often include a few seed clusters in the arrangement. The bottlebrush seeds can remain on the tree for years. Wildfires can cause the seeds to open and seed-eating birds help disperse them but the plant can also be propagated through softwood cuttings. Young trees are usually stocked by most nurseries and garden centers.

If you're looking for a hardy, low-maintenance ornamental to add to your landscape, consider a bottlebrush tree. It's not a Florida native plant but it certainly attracts native wildlife. One small tree will provide sustenance to countless birds, butterflies and bees with plenty of material left over for decorative indoor displays.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Soup's on!

A warm bowl of Butternut Squash soup topped with a dollop of cashew cream is delicious meal regardless of the weather Three basic ingredients are all that’s needed to make a satisfyingly tasty simple meal.

Simply Living
February 20, 2012

Hot soup is the perfect food for a cold day, but some soups are so tasty and easy to prepare they are a welcome meal in any weather. That's the case with Butternut Puree, one of many flavorful offerings at Karma, a restaurant in Northampton, Mass.

Our daughter and her family live in that quaint New England town and whenever we visit — frequently since the twins were born — we take advantage of the restaurant's tasty offerings. While every menu item we've tried has been yummy, Butternut Puree is the one we're most likely to reorder.

On its webpage (, the eatery says it "focuses on creating pure food that is delicious to the palette and beautiful to the eye." That's certainly true of Butternut Puree. Imagine a steaming bowl of saffron-colored smoothness, topped by swirls of creamy whiteness. Now balance the squash's natural sweetness with the slight pungency of caramelized onions, seasoned with a touch of curry and enhanced by the richness of cashew cream. Voila! No salt, greasy oil or sugar needed to make this simple soup delicious.

Since dining opportunities at Karma are limited to the times we travel north, I experimented at home to create an approximation of Karma's sublime offering. Happily, the formula I came up with is similar in taste and texture to the original. Butternut Puree — I call it Butternut Squash Soup — is a filling, flavorful and healthful meal. While low in calories (153 calories per two-cup serving), it is high in potassium and vitamins A and C. It is also extremely easy to prepare even though preparation is a two-step process, which means a bit of planning is involved.

Three basic ingredients:  Butternut squash, sweet onion, cashew butter

Ingredients: 1 large butternut squash (around 5 pounds); 1 large sweet onion; 1 tablespoon curry powder; 12 ounces tea, cooled; 1 teaspoon olive oil; 2 tablespoons unsalted cashew butter; about a tablespoon of water.

Planning: The day before you make the soup, brew up a pot of tea and set it aside to cool. Any tea will do but I'm partial to either a green tea (Prince of Peace Organic Jasmine Green Tea) or an herbal ginger blend (Tazo Organic Spicy Ginger). While the tea is brewing, preheat the oven to 400 degrees and cut the butternut squash in half lengthwise.

Butternut squash has a hard skin, so be sure to use a sharp knife and great care when slicing it lengthwise. After the squash is cut in half, scoop out the stringy strands of seeds and set them aside for later. Place the lengths of squash flat side down on a large cookie sheet and put in the oven, where it can bake for about an hour or until a knife poked through the skin comes out easily.

Once the squash has finished baking, let it cool for a couple hours until it is a comfortable temperature to handle. At that point, scoop out the orangey flesh, discard the skin and refrigerate the pulp until you are ready to make the soup.

Preparation: Peel, slice and sauté an onion in a teaspoon of olive oil until the slices are soft and transparent. Pour 12 ounces of tea into a food processor then add the squash pulp, sautéed onions and about a tablespoon of curry powder. Blend until smooth.

That's all it takes to make the soup. Now it just needs to be heated.

Heating and garnishing: Because its texture is thick, I use a double boiler to prevent burning but a microwave or careful warming directly on the stovetop is also effective. While the soup is warming, put the unsalted cashew butter (I use Artisana Raw Organic Cashew Butter purchased online through in a small bowl and add a few drops of water. Using the back of a spoon, blend the cashew butter with the water, gradually adding more drops and mixing until the texture becomes cream-like. Drizzle the cashew "cream" on top of the warm soup just before it is served.

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One 5-pound butternut squash makes eight servings of soup, enough to provide two people with warm, scrumptious meals for several days.

Bonus: Remember the squash seeds? Separate any strands of pulp from the seeds, then place them in a cast-iron pan, sprinkle with curry powder and roast on the stovetop over a low flame stirring often. After only a few minutes, the seeds start to dry out and soon become crispy. They make the perfect snack to munch upon before, during or after preparing the soup.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Thinking outside the store-bought box: 5 ways to express your love on Valentine's Day

A gift doesn’t have to be cost money to be meaningful. It can even be impermanent like these words in the sand and still have a lasting effect.

Simply Living
February 13, 2012

Tomorrow is Valentine's Day. If you haven't already done so, shop owners are hoping you'll come into their stores today and buy-buy-buy. As lovely as many store-bought presents are, spending cash isn't the only way to express love. A wealth of gifts awaits that special someone and the only thing needed to procure them is a little creativity.

Flowers — Flowers are a Valentine's Day staple and the sweet smell of roses, carnations or a fragrant orchid can linger long after the blooms fade. But don't forget, flowers grow in earth, not in a florist's cooler. Consider taking a walk around your own yard to pick a bouquet of your own making. If you notice a particularly pretty or sweet-smelling bloom in a neighbor's garden, knock on their door and ask permission to pick one or two. Most likely, they'll say yes. Not only will you return home with a floral display that is uniquely yours to give, you will also have given a second gift to your green-thumbed neighbor. Your appreciation of their garden will make them smile for many days to come.

Sweets — Is any gift sweeter than chocolate or candy? How about a treat from your own kitchen? It doesn't take long to whip up a cake, sweetbread, muffins, a tray of cookies or a plate of chocolate-dipped strawberries. These days, the Internet makes it easy, even if your baking experience is next to zero. Actually, inexperience is a plus in this case because the recipient of your efforts will know you took extra effort to make them something special. For step-by-step help creating that perfect dessert, check out YouTube videos as well as online recipe websites.

Pampering — We can all use a bit of pampering and a trip to the spa is a wonderful way to tell your love interest how much you care about their overall well-being. But massage sessions can be pricey, especially on a limited budget. Fortunately, you don't need to schedule an appointment or spend any cash when you create a spa in your own home. The only things needed for this gift is the willingness to turn off the phones for an hour, dim the lights, put on some soothing music and focus on your partner. Brushing your loved one's hair may not be a normal part of a massage treatment but it can be a wonderful way to pamper your partner and pampering is what this gift is all about. Remember, you don't need strong hands or expensive oils to give a massage. Soft strokes, light scratches or gentle tickling all go a long way to demonstrating your loving touch.

Honey-do list — We've all got them: long lists of chores that need to be done. Taking it upon yourself to do one or two of the most demanding tasks without being asked (that's the key ingredient here) can result in benefits store-bought presents may never realize. Cleaning out an unkempt closet, painting a wall, weeding a garden, unclogging the gutters or vacuuming the house may not seem like the most romantic offering but be forewarned: Doing these chores can result in unexpected displays of gratitude.  Make sure the bed is made if you decide to go with this Valentine's Day suggestion because there's a good chance you'll be landing on it in a romantic way by the end of the day.

Time out — Is there any better way to express your affection for the most important person in your life than to provide them with your undivided attention? Taking time out of your busy day doesn't cost a penny but it pays back in dividends that last forever. On Valentine's Day — on any day of your choosing — take time, make time, for your special someone. You don't have to do much. You can stay home and watch a movie. You can go for a walk or simply sit and talk. The main thing is to focus on the one person who means more to you than anyone else.

Businesses have seduced us into thinking the only way to express love is with material items, but that's simply not true. Valentine's Day isn't just a commercial venture. It's a time for each of us to remember what really matters in life. If someone is important to you, use this day to let that person know. Tell him you care. Give her a hug.

It doesn't cost a dime to give love away. It just makes sense.

Monday, February 6, 2012

A new flame really lights my fire

Ralph and Atom enjoy the glow of the gas-fired flame

Simply Living
February 6, 2012

I've been spending quite a bit of time lately sitting by the fireplace. My bare feet rest on the raised hearth while a steady blaze warms my toes.

A fireplace is not a feature most Northerners expect to find in a Florida home, but when we built our house 20 years ago we knew we wanted one included in the design. Except for the five years when we lived in Kissimmee, we always had a fireplace.

Our first home was on Cape Cod, where some sort of wood-burning feature was an integral part of all residential construction. A mason installed the firebox, but my husband made it beautiful by facing the front and back with large stones that we collected from the beach.

When I think back to those days, it's hard to believe how much work we did. Before any stone was set in place, we handled it at least four times.

The first step, of course, was finding stones. To do that, we'd drive to the dock, get into either the family's old Beetle Cat sailboat or trusty Boston Whaler and head to one of several small islands in Pleasant Bay. Once there, we'd walk purposely along the shore with downcast eyes. When we found an unusually shaped, extra smooth or colorful rock, we'd pick it up and carry it back to the boat. When the boat was full we'd sail or motor home, transferring the rocks to our old Datsun station wagon before unloading them into a pile near the house. Eventually, we sorted through the pile, dividing the beach stones by size and shape. Once sorted, we took them one-by-one into the house.

Building that fireplace was quite the project, especially for a young couple with no previous masonry experience. We must have poured as much love into that structure as we did concrete and sweat, but it was worth it. The result was stunning. Our stone-faced fireplace was the perfect focal point for our hand-built home.

On Cape Cod, the hearth was truly the heart of our home, filling the house with warmth, ambience and a feeling of security. Of course, it also filled it with smoke, ashes and the occasional ember that burned holes in the yellow pine floorboards and covered the pretty beach stones with smudgy, black soot. The downside to a blazing fire is that burning wood is a messy affair. Bugs and dirt come into the house with kindling and cordwood and no matter how careful you are a certain amount of smoke inevitably sneaks into the air.

Fireside memories from old Cape Cod motivated us to include a raised hearth fireplace in our Lake County home, but stays in the cabins at Silver River State Park in Silver Springs were responsible for our switch last month from wood to gas.

A favorite part of our overnight getaways to a state-park cabin was time spent in front of the gas fireplace. Each time we were there, Ralph and I were impressed when a flick of a switch was all it took to set the realistic looking ceramic logs aflame. A pretty fire raged as long as we wanted it to without any smoke, dirt or nasty bugs.

For two years, Ralph and I talked about converting our wood fireplace to a gas unit like the one we enjoyed at the park cabin. We did research, visited local stores and looked at dozens of images on the Internet of different log sets and flames. Finally, we made a decision and after a few false starts due to faulty materials, our propane-fired vented gas log set was up and working.

Now, on a chilly winter morning, we can warm our toes by a dancing flame. My allergy-sensitive nose appreciates the lack of smoke in the air and my yen for a tidy house is satisfied by the no-fuss-no-muss nature of fake logs and a gas flame.

If you had asked me 30 years ago if I'd exchange wood logs for made-to-look-like-wood ones, I would have laughed and said "No way!" Three decades since, I've had time to reconsider. The ambience and ease of a gas log set makes sense in Florida's mild climate. It's the perfect way to take the edge of a chilly day without adding unnecessary work.

Needs change over time. So do people. What I need now is more focus-on-the-fire time. Think I'll brew up some tea, take it over to the fireplace, put my feet up on the hearth, push the remote and enjoy the fire's steady glow.