Monday, October 29, 2012

Persimmons, an autumn treat

Ripe persimmons ready to dry

Simply Living
October 29, 2012

Our food dehydrator has been running non-stop lately.  Autumn is persimmon-picking season and we have been busy peeling, slicing and drying trays full of the popular Asian fruit.

Native to China but extensively cultivated in Japan, persimmons are an essential part of Japanese diet with over 1,000 different varieties cultivated for use in everything from wines and vinegars to baked goods and candy.  Although they were introduced to North America in the late 1800s by Admiral Perry and have been cultivated in Florida for over 100 years, persimmons failed to win over the palates of American consumers.

Perhaps their lack of popularity is due to the fruit’s astringency factor.  Most persimmon varieties are high in a soluble group of phenol compounds found in plants called tannins.  Other fruits that contain tannins include cranberries, pomegranates and strawberries.  When unripe, these fruits taste bitter and cause the mouth to pucker up and feel dry.  That changes as the fruit ripens and the tannin compounds decrease

The small plum-sized Florida native persimmons that grow wild in Central and Northern Florida are especially astringent.  Rather than being the type of fruit picked to eat fresh, wild persimmons are best cooked, fermented or made into jelly or jam.  However, certain varieties of Asian persimmons (Diospyros kaki) are good to eat right off the tree.  In addition to being the same color as tomatoes, these non-astringent tree fruits also share a tomato’s round, slightly squat shape.

Picking Hachiya (astringent) persimmons off the tree
Fuyu is one of most commonly grown varieties of non-astringent Asian persimmons.  When they are hard, I like to eat them like an apple, skin and all.  When soft and a little riper, I prefer to peel the skin (which toughens as it ripens) and eat the sweet flesh with a fork.

Instead of being round, astringent Asian persimmons are heart-shaped.  Hachiya is the most frequently planted variety of this high-tannin-count fruit.  In order to avoid the unpleasant dry mouth sensation, heart-shaped persimmons must be fully ripe and soft to the touch before eating.  When ripe, the flesh is very sweet with a pudding-like consistency.  I like to scoop out the flesh with a spoon to eat fresh or use in baking.

This year, we discovered that instead of waiting for Hachiya persimmons to ripen, we can peel, slice and dry the unripe fruit when it is still hard and otherwise inedible.  It turns out that heat from the dehydrator removes the astringency by accelerating the tannin removal process.  As the tannin cells decrease, the fruit’s natural sugars move to the surface resulting in a somewhat sticky, exceedingly sweet and quite tasty candy-like product.

When dehydrated, the trays full of persimmons will taste as sweet as candy

This new discovery adds to the many ways our family enjoys eating this underappreciated, nutritious fruit.  We eat a great many persimmons fresh either whole, cut up in slices or in fruit salad.  Occasionally, I bake with it, making persimmon bread or muffins but the main thing we do with persimmons is dehydrate them.  We then pack the dried fruit into small tightly sealed bags and place them in the freezer to enjoy as a sweet treat all year long.

If you have never eaten a fresh persimmon, now is a good time to try.  While Florida’s persimmon season has ended, California-grown persimmons will soon appear in produce departments for the November and December holidays.  And if you are one of the people who once sampled a persimmon but had an unpleasant experience, consider trying them again. 

Remember, if it is a round, slightly squat cultivated (non-wild) persimmon, it doesn’t matter if it is hard or soft.  At any stage of ripeness, most round persimmons are good to eat.  However, if it is a heart-shaped fruit, make sure to wait until the bright orange-red skin feels soft when squeezed before scooping out the flesh and taking a bite.  

Monday, October 22, 2012

Plant a flower...get a butterfly

Simply Living
October 22, 2012

The lifecycle of the lowly milkweed plant is a wondrous thing. 
Asclepias curassavica, commonly known as scarlet milkweed, tropical milkweed, blood flower and Mexican milkweed, starts life attached to a bit of fluff floating through air on a parachute of feathery whiteness.  Winged seeds that land in suitable spots (which, in the case of this naturalized weed, are just about anywhere) waste no time developing. 

Roots go down.  Sprouts grow up. 

Before long, elliptical leaves emerge followed by 2 to 3-inch wide clusters of reddish-orange-yellow star-shaped flowers.  When the flowers finish blooming, they transform into soft-sided, green seedpods that harden and turn grey-black as they mature.  Each pod contains hundreds of small round dark seeds attached to lightweight fluff.  Eventually, the pods crack open allowing the seeds to drift off to repeat the cycle of self-propagation. 

While scarlet milkweed progresses through its multi-staged development, an entirely different lifecycle is also underway. 

Monarch and queen butterflies use scarlet milkweed as a host plant.  Intrinsically interlinked with the nectar-producing wildflower, the butterflies deposit eggs on the plant’s leaves and stalks.  Less than a week later, the eggs hatch and miniscule emerging caterpillars immediately begin chomping away on the plant’s greenery.  After 9 to 14 days of voracious eating, the caterpillars have grown huge on their leafy diet and the once-pretty plants are devoid of verdant accoutrements.

By the time the tiny caterpillar on the underside of the milkweed leaf is ready to pupate, it will be over two inches long and will have completely defoliated the milkweed leaves

Caterpillars raised on milkweed leave the plants when ready to pupate.  They crawl a few feet away in search of a secure spot to form a jewel-like green chrysalis.  It takes another 9 to 14 days to complete the metamorphosis.  When the lovely butterfly emerges, it quickly flutters off toward the milkweed plant to begin the cycle again.

A few weeks ago, I looked out at the three milkweed plants in my front garden wondering what I should do with them.  The flowers had stopped blooming, the finger-length leaves were gone and the butterfly metamorphosis had progressed into the chrysalis stage.  All that remained of the previously cheery plants were a few 3- to 4-foot tall spindly stalks.  

These two mature caterpillars are almost finished eating up all the milkweed leaves and will soon be ready for the next stage in their amazing metamorphosis

In a surge of tidiness, I considered clipping them off but I got distracted and went off to do other things.  It’s a good thing I did because a few days later new leaves began emerging from the previously bare stalks.  

Today, about a month after noticing how bare the milkweeds had become, the plants boast a flush of greenery.  Once again, clusters of bright reddish-orange-yellow blooms are attracting a parade of nectar-seeking fliers.

A fluttery-winged monarch sips nectar from milkweed flowers

Scarlet milkweed is a fast-growing evergreen perennial native to South America, naturalized across the southern United States but also grown in northern locales as an annual from seed.  This no-fuss plant isn’t particular about soil or water conditions growing equally as well in dry, sunny spots as it does in more sheltered moist locations.  It also doesn’t mind growing in confined spaces, which makes scarlet milkweed a fine addition to a patio or container garden. 

At my house, burgeoning sprouts often pop up in the cracks between paving stones and among other potted plants.  I usually pull out the ones rooting through the cracks but leave alone those that have settled in previously planted containers.  Since scarlet milkweed is tall and slender, it coexists nicely with other tall blooms.  When it self-seeds among shorter plants, I’ve found that topping the leggy stalks encourages broad instead of vertically growth.

I like having plants in my garden that do so much while demanding so little. 

Scarlet milkweed provides pretty flowers from spring through late autumn, attracts bees, hummingbirds and an abundance of beautiful butterflies to the garden.  Its seedpods make attractive additions to dried flower arrangements and children enjoy playing with the fluff inside the pods.  Butterflies put on their own show as they use the plant to transform from egg-laying flutterers to leaf-gobbling caterpillars to emerging beauties.  

In return for all it gives, this lowly wildflower asks nothing from the gardener but a bit of space to grow and the chance to recover when its beauty seems all but lost - two requests I am more than willing to fulfill.  

Monday, October 15, 2012

A millipede invasion

Although harmless to people, the many-legged millipede can be intimidating if you are scared of creatures that resemble worms and snakes.

Simply Living
October 15, 2012

On Orchard Way, the dead-end street where I grew up in Yardley, PA, my mother’s fear of worms and snakes was common knowledge.  The neighbors all knew the sight of any slithering or slimy looking creature would send my normally composed parent into wild banshee mode, screaming uncontrollably.

It would have been a stretch to call my mother popular with the kids on our street.  Her no-nonsense nature and quick-to-criticize manner earned few points among adolescent boys, who responded to her complaints about their behavior by taking advantage of her fears.  

Their most memorable prank involved placing a knot of squiggly worms into our mailbox knowing full well my mother was the one who usually got the mail.  Mom’s reaction to their squirmy surprise far exceeded the expectations of all involved, earning its own page in Orchard Way history.

The other day as I hand-picked millipedes off the tiled floor, I thought of my mother who died in August 2010.  As I picked up one millipede after another, I wondered how my mother would have reacted.  If she saw as many cylindrical crawlers inside the house as I did, her level of hysteria might have surpassed the infamous mailbox incident. 

Although millipedes are not reptiles, they look enough like small snakes to trigger terror among ophidiophobiacs like my mother, people who are scared of snakes.  Belonging to a class of animals known as diplopoda, millipedes are multi-segmented arthropods with two pair of legs per segment.  These harmless-to-people invertebrates are often confused with centipedes, which have one pair of legs per segment.  While both have dozens of short appendages, the legs on centipedes are quite visible, protruding sideways from their bodies while less obvious millipede legs extend downward. 

Other differences include the color (centipedes are blackish-red while millipedes are grayish-brown), body shape (centipedes are flat, millipedes round) and speed of movement (centipedes are fast, millipedes slow).  Centipedes and millipedes also have dietary differences.  Centipedes are carnivores, which makes them beneficial to gardeners because they eat bugs that eat plants.  Millipedes, on the other hand, are vegetarians dining on decomposing organic matter as well as tender young leaves.  Centipedes are good for the garden because they consume bugs.  Millipedes… not so much.  Millipedes are beneficial in that they help break down organic material but not welcome when they nibble on newly sprouted broccoli leaves. 

At some point every year, millipedes seem to wander indoors.  They could be venturing inside to escape the heat or in search of dry ground during rainy periods.  For whatever reason, their move into interior spaces is an unfortunate choice.  Even the messiest home is not usually a depository for either decaying matter or tasty green sprouts so millipedes that seek indoor refuge rarely live long. 

The simplest way to deal with multi-legged millipedes that find their way through cracks into home is to pick them up and throw them outside.  Since they don’t bite or sting, handling them holds no danger.  For a more permanent solution, millipedes can be dropped into a pail of soapy water or doused by any number of home-defense type sprays.  Be forewarned that when touched, millipedes curl into a spiral in the hope that their pursuer will think they are already dead and leave them alone.  Centipedes won’t do that, which is another way to tell them apart.

When it feels threatened, a millipede curls into a spiral and stays still.

I don’t mind millipedes.  I don’t even get upset if they meander into my house.  I do regret, however, that I never took the time to ask my mother what made her so terrified of any creature that bore even the slightest resembled to a snake or worm.  There are some questions, I suppose, that can never be answered and there are some questions too late to ask.  

Monday, October 8, 2012

A plant that responds to touch

A newly planted Mimosa strigillosa

Simply Living
October 8, 2012

My Massachusetts-residing daughter is responsible for the acquisition of my most recent Florida native plant.

“Do you have any of those plants with the leaves that curl up when you touch them?” Jenny asked during a phone conversation. 

“You mean sensitive plant?  No, I don’t have any but I really like them,” I admitted.  “Maybe I’ll get some.”

It took several months but I finally did. 

During the last weekend in September, vendors were selling native wildflowers at Hickory Point Recreational Park during Lake County’s Wings and Wildlife Festival.  As I wandered from one display to another, I recalled Jenny’s question and honed in on the small pots of Mimosa strigillosa for sale. 

Also known as sensitive plant, powderpuff, sunshine mimosa, touch-me-not or sleeping grass, Mimosa strigillosa is a low-growing perennial in the legume family known for its touch-sensitive leaves and its sticky-looking pom-pom flower heads that are the size and shape of pink lollypops. 

Mimosa strigillosa is an entertaining plant to own, especially if you have young children.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Jenny asked me about them because she remembered stroking sensitive plants when she was little.  Much to a toddler’s delight, the tiniest touch immediately causes the leaves to fold inward.  You don’t even have to put a finger on Mimosa strigillosa to elicit a reaction.  A strong puff of air or a sprinkling of water accomplishes the same thing.  To a young child (or a young-at-heart adult) the fast transition can seem magical.

Like most magic, however, a trick or physiological explanation is often involved.  In the case of Mimosa strigillosa, it’s a little bit of both. 

The plant’s instant response to tactile stimulation is a defense mechanism employed to ward off potential threats.  Insects or animals that might bite into fresh leaves are less likely to nibble on greens that look wilted.  By changing its appearance when stimulated, Mimosa strigillosa fools predators into thinking it’s an unhealthy specimen.  However, the same characteristic has the opposite effect on people, especially little kids who thrill with the discovery of a plant that all but purrs when stroked.      

If children are drawn to Mimosa strigillosa for entertainment, butterflies come for a different reason.  They hover about because of the plant’s value as a food source.  Nectar in the pink pom-pom-shaped inflorescences draws a variety of butterflies to partake of the blossom’s sweetness before flying off to another source of botanical sustenance.  One yellow-winged beauty, however, does more than just sip and fly.  Little Sulphur butterfly (Pyrisitia lisa) uses Mimosa strigillosa as a host plant.  It stays long enough to lay eggs.

Little sulphur butterfly on firespike
Thanks to a reminder by my Massachusetts-based offspring, I have reacquainted myself with this fun-to-grow Florida native plant.  Over the next few months, I hope the three starts I planted will spread their roots to establish a mat of leaf-curling, pom-pom-studded flora to fill in the space beneath one section of our raised container garden.  If they do, they’ll provide me with many opportunities to introduce my grandchildren to the wonders of nature when they come to visit. 

And when Jenny comes to visit at the end of October, I’ll have something for her too.  I’ve put one plant aside just for Jenny because in addition to all its other attributes (ease of care, drought tolerance, pest-resistance, pretty flowers, folding leaves…) Mimosa stigillosa also makes a wonderful houseplant.  Jenny may not live in Florida, but that doesn’t mean she can’t take back with her a little bit of Florida’s sunshine mimosa.

Monday, October 1, 2012

A birthday month begins...

Simply Living
October 1, 2012

October is my birthday month but this year instead of waiting until the actual date to celebrate, I’ve decided to do something special every day.  The gifts – small gestures and kindnesses - won’t be for me alone.  My raison d’etre is to reach out to others – family, friends and even people I don’t know – to share my gratitude and appreciation of life.

I begin today, the first day of the month, by sending a thank you to you, my readers. 

Working as I do from home, my craft is, by choice, a solitary affair.  Rather than be in a crowded office surrounded by colleagues, I sit alone at the kitchen table tapping upon a keyboard while birds and butterflies flit by outside.  Aside from my husband and editor, I have no way of knowing who reads my printed words.  Unless contacted by email or phone, I’m unaware of reader feedback. 

Fortunately, people do contact me.  I offer a heartfelt thank you to everyone who has taken the time to write, call or post a comment online.  Whether you agree with my perspectives or not, I appreciate your input and find your responses reassuring.  Your messages, anecdotes and impassioned comments tell me my words have meaning and perhaps even depth.  To me, any indication of your support is a gift sublime.  I thank you for reading my introspective rambles.

To those of you who read my column but who have not been in touch, I offer gratitude too.  I don’t write Simply Living pieces expecting comment.  I do it because it’s my passion.  I’m grateful for the opportunity to observe my surroundings and express those observations in a public way.  Additional input is like frosting on a birthday cake – a sweet and special treat.

Over the next 30 days, I’ll be on a mission to give and receive sweet expressions of a life appreciated.  Despite our diversity, different circumstances and perspectives, each of us came into this world with one thing in common – the opportunity to experience life itself.  How we go about doing that is an individual’s choice.  I choose to take notice of the world I inhabit and to try my best to focus on the positive.

Every day we encounter others who make our lives richer.  Small kindnesses and considerations happen constantly at home, in the checkout line at the store, when we’re pumping gas or driving through town.  Simple gestures of friendliness and care can be the difference between a day regretted and one enjoyed.  What better time to pay attention to the little things in life that give us pleasure than during the month of our birth.

After six decades of traditional birthday celebrations, for my 61st year, I’m ready for something different.  Instead of receiving presents, I want to be present to the beauty of my surroundings and to the people who make my world a better place to live.