Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Green egg or maypop?

It may look like a large green egg hanging by a thin thread attached to a three-lobed leaf, but it's really the fruit of the passionflower plant (Passiflora incarnata), commonly known as maypop.

Maypop vines grow wild in the woods and fields of Central Florida.  On our property, this Florida native is ubiquitous. I find the perennial plant mixed in with brambles, climbing the lower limbs of oak and pine trees, sprawling across grasses and popping up among wetland plants near the lake and marshes.

Maypops or passionfruit develop from beautiful and intricate-looking passionflowers.  In addition to providing edible fruit for human and wildlife consumption, passionflower vines are the host plants for Gulf fritillary and Zebra longwing butterflies. Beauty with a purpose.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Discovering dulse

“Can you make some more of those dulse chips for dinner?” my husband Ralph asked.

It was late. We were hungry. The water for noodles was about to boil and the roasted vegetables had 15 minutes to go in the oven. I looked at the clock, then turned toward Ralph.

“Sure,” I told him. “The oven’s already hot. I can get them ready in time.”

I took down a large cast iron pan and lightly coated it with extra virgin olive oil. I opened the bag of dulse, releasing an aromatic hint of low tide, and filled the pan with torn off pieces of the reddish-purple leaves.

Although the seaweed Palmaria palmate has been a part of our diet for almost 40 years, making chips out of it is a new discovery. Previously, I added dulse to stir-fries, soups and sandwiches. Sometimes for a snack, I even ate it straight out of the bag. I still use it in those ways, but now I also roast it. Oven roasted dulse adds a special melt-in-your-mouth goodness with a satisfyingly salty, (although no salt is added) must-have-more flavor.

For those unfamiliar with it — that’s most Americans — dulse is one of thousands of wild edible sea plants. This particularly tasty sea vegetable comes from northern coastal waters of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans where it grows on rocky outcrops. 

Harvesting Dulse in Ireland
(photo from

A rich source of iodine, potassium, iron, fiber and protein, dulse is a regular part of the diet in Ireland, Iceland and coastal regions of Canada as well as in Japan and Korea. In the United States, however, not many people have heard of dulse, let alone tasted it.

While there are several companies that sell my favorite sea plant, we are long-time customers of Maine Coast Sea Vegetables. During early summer through fall, the family-owned company based in Franklin, Maine, sustainably harvests its organically certified product from the remote and chilly waters of Gulf of Maine bays.

Dulse drying and being harvested by the folks from Maine Coast Sea Vegetables
(photo from

Dulse is such an important part of our diet that we buy it in bulk, ordering more than a pound at a time, which is enough to last us a year. For those new to dulse, two-ounce packages also are available at local health food stores or online. Since it is a dried food and comes in vacuum-sealed packages, it doesn’t spoil or require refrigeration.

2-oz pkg
Directly from the bag, dulse has a somewhat leathery jerky-like texture but any toughness disappears with even the smallest touch of moisture. When my husband adds it to salads, he likes to soften it first by quickly running a few pieces of the leafy sea vegetable under the faucet, but when I make dulse chips, a moist product is the opposite of what I’m after. Briefly roasting dried dulse on a lightly oiled pan in a medium-hot oven removes whatever moisture is present, leaving behind thin sheets of crispness that dissolve in the mouth almost as soon as they’re tasted.

By the time our roasted vegetables were done and the cooked noodles bathed in homemade pesto, my batch of crunchy dulse chips was also ready to enjoy. Ralph and I filled our plates with a little bit of everything (confession: some of us may have had more than a little bit...) and sat down to another yummy and nutritious feast.

“After all these years, I can’t believe we just discovered how good dulse is as a chip,” said Ralph as he bit into another sliver of my crinkly concoction.

I looked at him as he reached for another handful.

“Better late than never,” I said as I batted his hand away from the pan. “Hey, save some for me. I want more too.”

Sherry’s Dulse Chips Recipe
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Lightly coat the bottom of a pan with about a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil.

Place about a quarter-ounce of dried dulse (the exact amount is not important) on the oiled pan and bake for 15 minutes.

While in the oven, use a fork to gently turn the dulse once or twice to make sure all sides are evenly baked. It doesn’t matter if every individual piece get turned, just do your best to mix it up a little.

After 15 minutes, check for doneness by lightly touching the baked dulse. If it feels brittle and crisp, it’s done. Take out of the oven and let cool for a few minutes before eating.

Leftover dulse chips can be stored on a shelf in a sealed container and will remain crisp and crunchy for several days.

Learn more about dulse in this short video (below) about the Maine Coast Sea Vegetable company which aired on the weekly PBS television show, American Heartland.

Maine Seaweed Harvest - America's Heartland

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Oh, my! What a sky! More morning skyscapes

July 25, 2014
The moon's gift to an early morning rower

All week, while on my early morning row, I've watched the waning moon grow smaller and smaller until yesterday morning, July 26th (new moon) when it was completely gone.

While every morning I was treated to one spectacular skyscape after another, my favorite vista took place on Friday, July 25th when I was out early enough to see the moon's last hurrah - a slim sliver of brightness (pictured above) shine down from the eastern sky.

Below are my morning captures each taken slightly before or just after 6 a.m. Which one do you like best?

July 27, 2014
I never know what I'm going to find when I step outside in the early morning.  Sometimes the sky practically explodes with beauty, like it did this morning.

July 26, 2014
A bit blurry - I must have gotten up too early with eyes not yet ready to focus.

July 25, 2014
A touch of brightness against muted tones

July 25, 2014
I couldn't resist another moon-shot, this time above the hedge of multiplex bamboo

July 24, 2014
Cloudy morning

July 23, 2014
Picture perfect!

July 22, 2014
Just before starting my row

July 22, 2014
Taken about an hour later upon my return to shore

July 21, 2014
Pretty patterns

July 20, 2014
Taken just after starting my row, heading north
July 20, 2014
Taken about half way through the row in the south end of the lake

Friday, July 25, 2014

Can trees smile? Maybe...

A while back a large limb on one of our black mulberry trees split down the middle.  I don't know what caused it to break apart like that but I figured the gash would eventually cause the limb to die.  

It never did.  

Not only did it go on living, it went on to support a heavy crop of fruit this past spring.  

Now, whenever I walk past the tree, I see the split and smile.  I'm glad because the broken limb lived, but I'm also happy because it looks like the tree is happy too.  

Do you think the tree is smiling?  I think it is.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Rainbow sky

Yesterday, late afternoon.

What a downpour we had!  Finally, the rain stopped and when I looked out the window, the air was filled with a golden glow. I knew what that meant.

If I went outside, there'd be a rainbow.

Sure enough, a colorful arc stretched across the lake.  Although I could see both ends, the southern arch was much more distinct. But just as thrilling as the colored arc were the blue streaks of light that spread westward from the horizon, bisecting the rainbow and continuing outward and upward.

Moment by moment, the sky changed colors.  The north end of the rainbow, which had been visible only seconds before, disappeared, hidden beneath a cover of clouds.

Even with the rainbow gone, the sky remained gorgeous.  The lake was calm with a light mist rising.

And everywhere I looked - north, south, east and west - was a gorgeous view.  I love a rainbow sky.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Plain-Jane Beauty

The duskywing butterfly is not a beauty.  Other members of the Hesperiidae family have brighter colors, prettier patterns, larger wings.

But catch that Plain-Jane flutterer moments after it has landed on the pink lip of a rain lily bloom and beauty suddenly takes on new meaning.

    Duskywing butterfly (Erynnis juvenalis) about to gather nectar with curled proboscus

Monday, July 21, 2014

Plant it and they will come

I have a hummingbird feeder, but it isn’t hanging outside. It’s sitting on a shelf in my closet attracting dust instead of birds. I haven’t put it up because I want to attract hummingbirds with nectar-rich plants instead of artificially colored sugar water.

Sometimes stubbornness pays off.

After months of weeding out garden beds, shifting plants around and installing new cultivars, those precious gems of the sky finally have found my garden.

Male Ruby-throated Hummingbird lapping nectar from Wendy's Wish Salvia

In addition to being the smallest birds in the world, hummingbirds are also the lightest. The littlest hummer, the Bee Hummingbird, is only two inches long from beak to tail and weighs less than a penny while the largest member of the species, the Giant Hummingbird, is four times as long and 10 times heavier. At 20 grams, it weighs almost as much as four nickels.

Neither the Bee or Giant Hummingbird lives in Florida but all hummers — there are over 300 species — live in the Americas. Of those, 16 are found in the United States, and three, the Ruby-throated, Rufous and Black-chinned, regularly are sighted in Florida.

Hummingbirds have frequented our property before but not often enough to be considered “regulars.” To change that, I decided to establish a hummingbird garden filled with plants the birds couldn’t resist. I decided to place it on the south side of our house just outside the bedroom window where a bottlebrush tree already grew. 

With its sticky red blossoms, the bottlebrush tree, Calistemon viminalis, attracts butterflies, bees and other birds so I was confident it would draw hummingbirds, too. In the past when I’ve spotted a hummingbird, it was usually flying from one bottlebrush bloom to another.

Hummingbird resting on a bottlebrush branch

My first addition to the new garden was Wendy’s Wish Salvia, a magenta-colored sage that is a cinch to grow, easy to propagate and a known hummingbird magnet. I was thrilled to find one at Simon Seed in Leesburg.

After installing it in the ground, I transplanted some scarlet-colored Tropical Sage plants, Salvia coccinea, to the garden and positioned a raised container of Orange-flame Justicia, Justicia chrysostephana, next to the window in the hope of providing an up-close feeding view.

Justicia chrysostephana

Once everything was in place, I fell asleep each night anticipating the morning. Would today be the day hummingbirds arrived?

One day it finally was.

“A hummingbird!” I screamed to my still sleepy-eyed spouse. “Look! Right there on the bottlebrush tree.”

I sprung out of bed but by the time I was up, the bird was gone.

“Where’d it go?” I lamented. “It moved so fast!”

With wings beating about 80 times per second and a flight speed of 25-30 miles per hour, hummingbirds look like flashes of shimmery color. After initially losing track of it, I eventually spotted the long-beaked bird a short distance away from the garden methodically going from one aloe vera flower to another.

When selecting plants for the hummingbird garden, I hadn’t considered aloe. Yet it seemed an obvious choice seeing how perfectly the hummingbird’s beak fit inside each pale red, pendulous bloom.

A hummingbird consumes nectar by lapping up the sweet substance with its grooved, hairy-tipped tongue at a rate of about 13 licks per second. Since it must visit about 1,000 flowers every day to gain enough nutrition, it’s not surprising that it sometimes gets tired. While watching the bird at the aloe plant, I saw it stop flying and perch for a few seconds on the plant’s slender stalk.

Hummingbird legs are short and stubby. They can barely walk but they can grab hold of objects. In fact, most of a hummer’s life actually is spent perched on a branches or stems. The bird I watched not only rested on the stem, it ate while sitting. Without flapping its wings at all, it stretched its neck upward into the flower.

Eating while resting, a good way to conserve energy

Since that morning, little capsules of energy have flown into my new garden several times a day — and that only counts the times I’ve been watching. To replenish the immense amount of energy it takes to fly from one flower to another, hummingbirds feed approximately seven times an hour for 30 to 60 seconds at a time. In addition to the aloe, I’ve seen a Ruby-throated hummingbird go to the Justicia and bottlebrush blooms plus both varieties of salvia. I’ve also watched it feed on the bright pink four-o’clock flowers growing in my east garden, another plant that it seems to enjoy.

In the 1989 movie Field of Dreams, an Iowan farmer built a baseball diamond in the middle of his cornfield after hearing an ethereal voice pronounce, “If you build it, they will come.” I’ve discovered the same concept works for gardeners. If you want to attract hummingbirds, leave your store-bought feeder on the shelf. Plant the right flowers, and they will come.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

More morning magic

My bedroom window faces south, so when I wake up in the early morning, it's often still dark outside.  However, the front porch faces east and I know the sky will look completely different as soon as I get out of bed and go there.

This is the view I saw this morning at around 6:15 as I opened the porch door and stepping outside.

July 19, 2014

The sky was amazing.  The entire eastern section was filled with the most stunning colors.  Lately, I've been waking up around 6 a.m. to go out for a morning row before the sun rises and while the lake is still calm.  Every morning the sky is different.  Sometimes, it's cloudy. Sometimes it's clear.  But always it's filled with the most vivid colors.

Below are some pictures from the past week. Most were taken on the shore just before I launched the boat.  Although occasionally, the sky (which changes colors moment-by-moment) was so stunning, I had to put the oars down to pick up the camera and capture another image of the morning magic.

July 18, 2014

July 17, 2014

July 16, 2014 

July 15, 2014

July 14, 2014

July 13, 2014

Friday, July 18, 2014

Waxing or waning?

I see the moon, but what is it doing?  It's no longer a full moon. But it's not a new moon either. Is it waxing or is it waning?  I always have trouble remembering which one is which.

So I did some research and found this simple rhyme on the site

If you see the Moon at the end of the day
A bright Full Moon is on its way
If you see the Moon in the early dawn
Look real quick, it will soon be gone.

Well, I saw the moon at dawn during my early morning row.  So, according to the rhyme, it's a waning moon.

With this new information in mind, I've made up my own rhyme. It's a little shorter and maybe easier to remember:

Wax at night, wane by day
Until the moon wanes away

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Look who moved in...

Several weeks ago I added some birdhouses to the south garden. Although I knew it was a bit late in nesting season, I hoped a Carolina wren or some other small bird might still be looking for a place to raise young.  

Although a wren did come by a couple times to check things out, it wasn't a bird at all who finally moved in.

It was a little lizard! A Brown Anole seems to like hiding out in the ceramic hat birdhouse.  

When he is not inside the house, he likes to stand on its "roof" and strut his stuff.

In the picture above, the lizard is extending his dewlap or throat flap, a colorful appendage that males use to attract females and to declare territorial claims.

Maybe next spring instead of lizards, birds will inhabit the birdhouses. Until then, I'll be watching the Brown Anole as he goes about his business of eating insects, chasing away other lizards and resting in the shelter of a hat-shaped ceramic birdhouse.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Settling in for the night, butterfly fashion

While walking through the south garden after this evening's downpour, I saw two butterflies that looked as if they were searching for places to roost.

The first butterfly, a Gulf Fritillary, fluttered around the Wendy's Wish Salvia.  Eventually, it landed on one specific spot. Perhaps it spent the night there.  I don't know for sure because while watching the Fritillary, I was distracted by another winged beauty that flew by.  

A Great White Southern Butterfly landed on a pink rain lily wet with raindrops. I followed to see what it would do.

Although the Southern White stayed on the rain lily for a while, it kept readjusting its position. Eventually, it moved on, touching down on several leaves before settling at last on an ice plant leaf.

Like all butterflies, Gulf Fritillaries and Great White Southerns fly during daytime and rest at night. For roosts, they seek out perches on the underside of leaves, between blades of grass or in the narrow spaces between rocks.

Although I don't often think about where butterflies sleep or where they go during inclement weather, I appreciated the reminder of our interconnection with nature.  People are not alone in seeking out secure shelters.  Even butterflies need a safe place to rest.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Tasty tomatoes come from compost

What does it say about a person’s horticultural skills when the best-performing tomato plant in the garden is a volunteer vine growing in the compost pile?

Don’t tell my husband — Ralph’s ego is at stake — but the tomatoes he planted in the garden don’t hold a candle to the ruby-red gems that have taken over the compost heap.

Cherry tomatoes growing among the weeds and food scraps in the compost pile

A compost pile is a wondrous thing. Its ability to transform kitchen waste and garden refuse into rich soil puts illusionist David Blaine to shame. Without mirrors or sleight of hand, a bucketful of onion and garlic skins, potato peelings and that moldy batch of cooked beans from the back of the fridge turns into a tasty harvest of cherry tomatoes.

It’s magic, pure and simple.

I first noticed the cherry tomato plant growing in our compost pile several months ago. Back then, it was a small thing, popping out of the back corner of the enclosure like an exuberant weed.

Our compost pile is a three-sided structure of haphazardly stacked blocks set into a hillside about 30 feet away from the house. Our compost bucket — an old blue enameled pot — lives on the kitchen counter and every couple days one of us lugs it up the hill to dump its contents on top of the heap.

Our compost pile is more functional than fancy

Despite our efforts to beautify the area where organic matter decomposes, our compost pile would never appear in the pages of a garden magazine. It’s a messy, smelly place filled with visible reminders of yesterday’s meals, garden detritus and assorted weeds. We never turn it, as experts recommend. Instead, we rely on the toss-and-walk technique, carelessly tossing our food scraps into the pile, then quickly walking away.

Nonetheless, our less-than-fancy system repeatedly rewards us with edible delights. Last year, papaya trees grew out of some thrown-away seeds and the discovery of avocado saplings no longer surprises us.

Our current crop of compost-pile-grown tomatoes arrived in a manner similar to the way the papayas and avocados took root. Sometime last season, Ralph or I threw a few old tomato vines into the compost pile along with other past-their-prime plants. A few tomatoes still clung to some of those vines, and eventually they began to rot, depositing cherry tomato seeds into the compost pile.

Once there, the seeds waited patiently. When temperatures warmed, they began to grow. They did all this on their own without need to read the back of a seed packet to find recommended planting dates and without additions of any special soil mixtures or pest-control formulas. They grew because conditions were right. They were left alone, and they thrived.

I really like cherry tomatoes. Fresh off the vine, they taste like candy — sweet bursts of flavor tickling my mouth. Slow roasted in a cast iron pan with a little olive oil, garlic, onions and a few basil leaves, they turn into a smooth dance across the palate, rich and vibrant. Lately, when I’m in need of a cherry tomato fix, I find myself ignoring the measly specimens clinging to the staked up garden plants and head instead to the compost pile.

Bite-sized bursts of flavor

It’s not easy picking. To access the shiny orbs, I have to get down on my knees (no longer as easy as it used to be) where fire ants usually find me. I also have to reach down through the tangled vines and leaves to where who-knows-what is living.

But when I finally do reach the tomatoes…oh, my gosh! Such bright-colored beauties! Such ripe, juicy sweetness!

Instead of feeling upstaged in the tomato-growing arena by a rogue plant rooted in rot, I hope my husband the gardener appreciates the lessons taught by our compost heap harvest: Goodness can sprout out of the most unsavory conditions, and sometimes hard work must take a second seat to unplanned gifts of nature.