Monday, April 30, 2012

Sweet! An unexpected treat!

Surinam cherries turn from a bright red to a deep maroon when ripe.

Simply Living
April 30, 2012

I may be beginning my sixth decade but I felt the giddy excitement of a 6-year-old the other day when I made a foraged food discovery along a rural stretch of a west Orange County road.

I was driving along through the small town of Oakland on my way home from the Winter Garden Farmer's Market. That particular stretch of two-lane is especially scenic. Interesting looking older homes line the street flanked by mature landscapes and huge shade trees.

As usual when traveling this road, my eyes scanned the yards in search of foliage. Over the years, I've found that older neighborhoods are the best places to find uncommon plants, especially those with edible fruit. I've discovered a wide array of edible and floral displays by driving slowly through lesser-traveled neighborhoods. I've also learned that when politely asked, homeowners are usually kind enough to let me pick my fill of fresh-off-the-tree-or-bush treats.

Although I've taken the route from my south Lake home to Winter Garden almost weekly for several years now, I had yet to discover any fruit-laden gems.

That changed one recent day.

I was moseying along at a sedate 35 mph when a shock of yellow Mexican sunflowers caught my eye.

"Darn," I thought to myself, "My Mexican sunflowers got completely killed back by last winter's cold snap while this plant was untouched."

The farther I drove, the more I noticed plants that had made it through last winter unscathed. Hibiscus, shell gingers and loquat trees stood flush with flower, fruit and greenery. I wondered how a mere 20 miles could make such a difference. At home, frost damage had stunted growth on those plants and others.

As I approached a stop sign, I glanced to my right and caught a glimpse of what I thought might be a fruit-covered Surinam cherry bush. Surinam cherries were on my mind because the previous day — for the first time since 2008 — I noticed a handful of unripe berries on the one remaining bush in my yard. Of my half-dozen original plants, only one made it through the past few winter freezes.

Surinam cherry (Eugenia uniflora) is a South American native also known as Brazilian cherry, cayenne cherry, Florida cherry or by the exotic moniker, pitanga. The Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council considers Eugenia uniflora a Category I invasive species because it has spread out of control in South Florida. However, in the central and northern parts of the state it doesn't exhibit the same kind of invasive behavior because of its sensitivity to cold temperatures. When the thermometer dips below 30 degrees (as it does most winters), Surinam cherry bushes either suffer or, like the ones in my yard, give up the fight and die.

Since I wasn't sure if the plant I passed was a Surinam cherry or not, I decided to loop around the block to check it out again. As I returned to the spot where the bush stood, I slowed down to a crawl. Sure enough, it was a pitanga — a big sprawling bush filled with ripe fruit!

While I like the taste of Surinam cherries, the fruit of this shrub are not on everyone's favorite food list. The somewhat acidic, tart taste of these marble-sized maroon-colored berries is subtle at best. While I can honestly say Surinam cherries are neither particularly flavorful nor sweet, they are undeniably juicy. Yet, despite its lack of culinary distinctiveness, something about these small blood-red orbs appeals to my taste buds.

Although called a cherry, Eugenia uniflora is actually in the Myrtle family and is more closely related to guavas, cloves, allspice, feijoa and eucalyptus plants than it is to the familiar Bing cherry, which is in the Rose family. However, it is similar in size and color to cherries and like them, its soft flesh does surround a large pit (or occasionally two pits). It also shares a cherry's round shape except it has a flat base and ribbed sides.
Since the bush I discovered was alongside the road in a commercial location, permission to pick seemed unnecessary. Searching through the car, I uncovered a relatively clean pint-size container and proceeded to fill it with fruit. In less than 10 minutes, I was back on the road, the juicy, sweet-tart tang of foraged fruit flavoring my ride home.

I went to the Winter Garden Farmer's Market to stock up for the week on fresh produce but returned home with more than I purchased. I left with the realization that there's no age restriction on experiencing unexpected pleasure nor is there a limit to the amount of joy gleaned from discovering roadside treats. I also came back with the reaffirmation that one person's exotic plant pest is another's foraged delight.

That's what I call a successful outing.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Celebrating poems

Simply Living
April 23, 2012

Poems were the storybooks of my childhood. They have always meant so much to me. Growing up, my two favorite collections were a 1936 edition of "The Best Loved Poems of the American People" and Robert Louis Stevenson's classic "A Child's Garden of Verses." The former — its cover long gone — still sits on a shelf in my bedroom. I always open it carefully so as not to disturb any of the pressed flowers and four-leaf-clovers placed years ago to mark special pages.

Sometime during high school and college, I discovered Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Ogden Nash, Tennyson and Wordsworth. The verses of A.A. Milne, Shel Silverstein and Bill Peet took on special meaning once I started having children of my own.

I don't have many lines memorized, but a few select verses have taken root in my mind. The familiarity of the words, the sentiments, the rhymes and rhythms are balm to my spirit. Like the old friends they are, I revisit them frequently for comfort and joy.

Unlike me, my father-in-law, Ralph P. Boas, knew many poems by heart. His capacity for remembering words of whimsy, story poems and limericks was truly remarkable. His splendidly executed recitations never failed to amaze and entertain. I've always felt fortunate to have married into a family with such a gifted patriarch.

My father-in-law and I not only shared an appreciation for all things poetic, we shared a passion for composing our own poetry, too.

I wrote my first poem when I was 9 and have since filled many an old napkin, scrap of paper and computer file with my introspective meanderings. Poetry was the outlet for my teenage angst and helped me over the hurdles of young parenthood. I've written rhymes to commemorate special occasions and others that simply satisfied my need to express the moment.

On Thursday, in honor of National Poetry Month and Poem in Your Pocket Day, I invite anyone who shares my passion for poetry to join me at 7 p.m. at Yada Yada Pottery & Indie Coffee House located in WindHorse Wellness Center in Eustis. I'll be there with a few favorite verses to read aloud and I hope you will bring along a special poem or two, too. All types of poems are welcome.

In a world in which woeful and frightening events often take center stage, we can all use a dose of soothing contemplation. I invite anyone to come to this free event with or without a poem in his or her pocket. Come to listen. Come to share. Come to celebrate the power and beauty of the written word.

For more information about Poem in Your Pocket Day as well as links to thousands of poems visit

Poem in Your Pocket Day
What: Informal gathering of people who enjoy poetry, their own or others.
When: 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday.
Where: Yada Yada Pottery & Indie Coffee House located in WindHorse Wellness Center, 351 Plaza Drive, Eustis.
Details: 352-735-1328, or
Cost: Free.

Monday, April 16, 2012

A pretty but prickly Florida wildflower

"It's tricky picking pretty prickly poppy plants." Try saying that five times fast.

Argemone albiflora

If you're having difficulty twisting your tongue around the words, it's a lot easier than wrapping your hand around the bristly stems and thistly leaves of this Florida wildflower. Safer, too.

Look but don't touch the white prickly poppy, a roadside wildflower that appears in well-drained, dry sandy locations March through mid-summer.

White prickly poppy (Argemone albiflora) is a Florida native that appears along roadsides when the weather begins to warm in March and continues flouting its showy blooms throughout the early summer months.

Several white prickly poppies growing alongside the highway in Minneola

Rather than growing in sprawling clusters like blanketflower, black-eyed Susan, tickseed or phlox, individual plants have a tendency to pop up in random locations. Along a short stretch of U.S. Highway 27 north of Minneola I've noticed several spots where single prickly poppy plants are growing in the disturbed area between pavement and tree line.

The plants, which stand about 3 feet tall and half as broad, have milky blue stems with sharp needle-like spikes that are responsible for one of its common names, Bluestem prickly poppy. Other nicknames include the equally apt thistle poppy and crested prickly poppy.

Prickly leaves and bristly stems do an excellent job of protecting this pretty wildflower

Regardless of what name it goes by, one thing is certain — ignore prickly poppy and it's happy. Pamper this white-flowered beauty and watch it waste away.

Prickly poppy won't thrive if placed in a garden-like setting with rich, organic matter where it is watered frequently, fertilized and mulched. The environment it needs has dry, well-drained sandy soil in a sunny to partially sunny location.

I find it interesting that such a well-armored, leave-me-alone plant has such pretty, delicate blossoms. The white nearly flat cup-shaped blooms are 2 to 3 inches wide with bright yellow centers. They are easy to notice when driving down the road because they provide a sharp contrast to the green landscape.

Travelers aren't the only ones to notice these warm-weather bloomers. The pollen-rich flowers attract bees and butterflies, but deer and livestock know better than to approach these prickly bloomers because, like other members of the poppy family (Papaveraceae), all parts of white prickly poppy contain highly toxic components.

Break the stem and a white latex sap leaks out.

The ancient Romans, Native Americans and traditional healers in many cultures have used the alkaline liquid, which turns yellow as it dries, to relieve skin ailments like cold sores and warts. However, the sap can also cause irritation and even glaucoma if it gets into the eyes. Similar risks are associated with the plant's seeds, roots and leaves. The seeds have a sedative effect but can also cause vomiting. The flowers and roots have usefulness in treating congestion but only if administered in proper proportions. The entire plant contains too much risk of toxicity for anyone but a trained herbalist to use.

"It's tricky picking pretty prickly poppy plants" is more than a tongue twister — it's a good thing to remember when approaching this roadside beauty.

Monday, April 9, 2012

An island rises

In 2012, three turtles consider the emerging island of peat to be an excellent place to catch some rays on an April afternoon

Simply Living
April 9, 2012

An island is being born. I can see it from my kitchen window.

Beneath the shimmering surface of our 12-acre lake lie scattered mounds of peat left over from a mining process that ended a few years before we purchased the property. Some mounds are small. Others are big.

One of the broadest swaths of submerged soil sits smack in the center of the lake, only it isn't underwater anymore.

Day-by-rainless-day, the lake level gets lower and the island of peat becomes more and more visible. Last week I couldn't see the island at all. A mere seven days later it was large enough to support three turtles soaking up the midday rays. If the drought continues, it soon will be to the point it was 11 years ago when a pair of sandhill cranes chose the peat island for a nest site.

In 2001, water levels dropped so drastically it exposed a huge mid-lake island of peat. Although by then we had been living on the property for nine years, it was the first time we saw the peaty mass. Before, it had always been underwater.

We weren't the only ones to notice the change. The black mucky refuge attracted all kind of birds along with a variety of turtles, alligators and otters. Some came to perch, to hunt or to sun, but a pair of cranes staked a claim. They set about building a scrappy nest out of sticks and reeds and promptly filled it with two large brown speckled eggs. Predators arrived to case the situation but mama and papa crane were protective parents. They scared off or kept at bay any animal intent on devouring their offspring.

A family of sandhill cranes, one crow, an otter and a turtle took advantage of an exposed peat island in 2001.

As much as I worried about the low water level that year, I enjoyed the daily antics of the cranes and other critters. On one memorable day, I woke up to see not only the crane family (by then two babies had hatched) but also a crow, an otter and a turtle on the island.

It has been over a decade since the water level was that low but it seems to be happening all over again. I wake up in the morning and the first thing I do is look out the window. How big is the island today? What animals are on it? Will the cranes nest there again? If they do, will summer rains come and wash it away?

I have mixed feelings when I look out at the island.

On one hand, I want the rains to come. The drought is severe. Plants are suffering. Water levels have receded. We need rain to replenish our own supply as well as to satisfy the thirst of plants and animals.

On the other hand, wildlife is adapting. I see more turtles now than during wet periods and that means the otters probably will return to snatch easy meals. Previously submerged landmasses like our peat islands now provide safe harbor for birds. Plants are springing up in the recently exposed soil and more ospreys than usual have been hovering overhead in search of crowded fish in a decreasingly smaller pond.

Change is one of life's few givens. It happens whether we want it to or not. Rather than fret over possibilities beyond our control, it's sometimes best to accept the inevitable while focusing on the positives that accompany all situations.

It's not every day one is privy to the birth of an island. I'm excited to see what happens next.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Rope swing and boulders influence homesite selections

A large live oak growing alongside the lake makes the perfect rope swing tree.
Simply Living
April 2, 2012

My husband and I have designed and built several houses over the past four decades but only two have been on large undeveloped parcels where we intended to live for a long time. Both times, before putting pencil to paper or picking up a hammer, we spent hours walking the land surveying our surroundings.

Our objective was always to find the perfect site. What kind of exposure to sunlight did it have? What would the view be like? Were there any interesting natural fixtures in place that we could enjoy?

On Cape Cod, where we built our first home, we found ourselves drawn to a hilltop where two large boulders overlooked a salt marsh. The boulders — vast mounds of granite poking out of the earth — looked alive. Their distinctive shapes — one resembling a giant's head with wide mouth agape, the other with a flat top that begged climbing — were so alluring. We didn't have children in those days but we had a small herd of goats. Knowing how much our Nubians loved to clamber up objects, Ralph and I pictured them atop the rocks.

We decided to place our house between the two boulders so they'd always be within sight.

We spent 17 years in that hand-built house and although we stopped having livestock before we started building the house, we never tired of the views. West-facing windows looked out over the marsh while our south-facing panes framed the larger of the two boulders. The other rock was next to our entry, visible whenever we passed. In my memories of those Cape Cod days, boulders figure prominently.

Five years after we moved to Florida we were ready to build our second home, but the site for that hand-built house relied more on botany than geology.

A large live oak — one of only six large trees growing on the entire acreage — stood next to the lake. Its long, broad limbs stretched toward the water. Ralph and I looked at that tree, looked at each other and shared the same thought: Rope swing tree!

By then we had a family or four young children who shared our passion for outdoor activities. How fun it would be, we thought, to hang a thick, knotted braid of fibers from one of those limbs, swing out over the water and let go!

One of our favorite spots in Massachusetts had been a Cape Cod National Seashore pond in Wellfleet where a rope swing enabled us to splash into the cold water as soon as the weather warmed enough to dare. Before we had children, Ralph and I had enjoyed many afternoons at Spectacle Pond. In Florida, we looked forward to introducing our kids to the same type of experience but in a warmer climate.

We decided to place our house near the water, close to the oak tree.

Twenty-one years have passed since the day Ralph and I first surveyed our surroundings. Ralph did hang a rope from one of the oak's thick limbs and it remains in place today. Over the years, our kids probably played on it more than we did and I expect our grandchildren will do the same.

The older I get, the less likely it is I'll take the plunge, but that doesn't stop me from reaping pleasure. I like the idea of a rope swing tree. Just having it there makes me smile. I don't need to wrap my arms and legs around the cord to remember the feel of wind through my hair or the adrenaline rush before I release my grip to drop down into the water. I can do that through memories and vicariously through my offspring's antics.

There are countless reasons why people choose home sites. Ours just happened to center around nature and outdoor fun. Whether it involves a splash, a climb or some other activity, it's never dull living where playful adventures are close at hand.