Friday, May 29, 2009

The Amazing Woodland Jack in the Pulpit and Garden Flowers

It was dark and stormy last night. Here there was at least an inch of much needed rain. It was surprising to see how dry the ground became after nearly week of temperatures in the eighties and high seventies. In general though, the spring weather was cool and not even the peas did very well but they are coming along nicely now.
The woods are a great place to be; many native wild flowers are blooming. Sure the fall colors get a lot of attention and rightfully so; but there is nothing equal to walk in the woods in the spring. Jack in the Pulpit plants are a favorite. Every spring I seem to find new colonies as I look for the ones I have always seen.
The unusual plants prefer deep shade, rich, loamy and moist soil and here seem to grow best under or around the beechnut trees. I guess the plant is edible but I'd be hesitant to try. Calcium oxate crystals are present in the plant and can cause a nasty, foul burning sensation. I know because I mistakenly tasted one when I was younger. The root, if properly cooked, can be eaten as a vegetable. There is also some indication the Jack in the Pulpit plant had some medicinal uses for Native Americans and the early settlers. I think it is a good idea to just admire this unusual plant or to get an aspirin.
This amazing plant can change it's sex every year depending on it's nutrient intake. One year it can be a male, the following year a female. The majority of flowers have both female and male flowers.
The Jack in the Pulpit flowers are found deep inside the spadix are pollinated by tiny insects which get fooled when they get inside the tube. It is a fascinating story about a woodland, perennial herb native to most of eastern North America.
While it is best to not eat and just admire the Jack in the Pulpit, there are flowers which can be safely eaten and grown in the vegetable garden. Nasturtiums are one. The colorful flowers, leaves, seeds and stem can be used in cooking and have a distinct peppery flavor. They are high in vitamin C and there is some indications that they can ward off infections with an ingredient which mimics penicillin. This colorful plant is a good addition to the vegetable garden since it attracts many good pollinators.
Other edible plants which can be used in the garden and the kitchen include: marigolds, chrysanthemums, carnations, day lilies, pansies and squash blooms are just a few. Borage is also a good flowering herb which has many culinary purposes as well as a benefit to the bees. Although Borage is listed as an annual, it readily reseeds itself and grows where ever the next year.
While a vegetable garden is a lot about tomatoes, broccoli and peppers, there are also some tasty flowers, which also benefit the pollinators and add color to the drama, much like the exotic Jack in the Pulpit in the shady woods. For more gardening information, please click on the title. Some of the other Blogs which I follow and you may want to visit are Kathleen Richardson at On My Way to to the Top and Dan at Urban Veggie Garden. Thanks.

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Memorial Day, the Civil War and the Oyster Plant

I wanted to do a post about the Jack in the Pulpit plants now blooming in the woods. However, the plants can wait a day or two since it is Memorial Day, one of America's most important national holidays.
Memorial Day is a day of remembrance for those military people who fought, served and died for this great country. Over the years, it has also become a time to remember everyone who has reached the “other side”, both family members and friends. Graves are decorated and there are quiet visits to cemeteries.
Originally, Memorial Day was called Decoration Day; a solemn day to remember those who were killed in the bloody and tragic American Civil War. Slavery was certainly one of the key issues in that tragic conflict.
It was an important day in many communities of northwestern Pennsylvania just after the formal hostilities ended. And it remains a solemn day today in many of those same communities; Meadville, Erie, Girard, Wattsburg, Union City, Phillipsville and so on.
Northwestern Pennsylvania is rich in Civil War history. The cemeteries, large and small, are filled with the graves of those who served, marked with GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) plaques and flapping American flags. Many were young men from farms in rural areas of northwestern Pennsylvania who have been long forgotten.
Northwestern Pennsylvania is also rich in Underground Railroad History, perhaps the largest civil disobedience movement in the nations history. Untold numbers of slaves were housed, fed and clothed in many rural farm houses and churches and then taken into Canada and freedom. It was a secretive movement because it was illegal to help a slave escape; persons caught were jailed and fined. It was a serious federal offense.
John Brown who led the ill fated raid on Harpers Ferry just prior to the Civil War spent nearly ten years in New Ricmond just north of Meadville. He was active in the Underground and other anti-slavery actions. For more information, click on the title.
Every rural community had a GAR post, an organization formed to help the veterans of that horrible period in American history. The GAR was the center of a town's cultural and social life for decades until the veterans slowly died off and the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Affairs organizations stepped forward as the advocates for veterans after World War 1.
I have read some of the minute books (1880-1910) from a GAR post from the Cranesville, PA area, the Colonel Lytle Post. Several times a year, usually in late winter or early spring, the post had an “oyster supper” for members and townsfolk. It is likely they didn't have real ocean oysters back in the late 1800's but more likely used salsify, a vegetable root crop which is also called the oyster plant.
Salsify is an old time vegetable favorite worth planting. It grows like a parsnip and can be harvested like a parsnip in late winter and early spring. Freezing weather makes this root crop much sweeter. Here is the recipe for oyster soup. So yes, Memorial Day is particularly important this year. We have elected Barak Obama as our president, something unthinkable even a decade ago; we need to support our troops who are fighting two separate wars; and vegetables gardens have taken on a new importance as we struggle through one of the worst recessions since 1929. Salsify is worth the try, it really is pretty darn good and healthy as well as historic.

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Purple is Darn Good

Due to some issues, I haven't been able to publish a post here for several weeks. However, everything is back on track.
This week we finally got some decent warm weather. Last week was cold and rainy with scattered frosts. But here on the top of the hill, it wasn't quite cold enough for Jack Frost, but the valleys and other low areas took a beating.
My purple asparagus spears finally showed on April 28. I planted a variety called “purple passion” from seeds three years ago. This variety is said to be sweeter and has a nutty flavor, according to the seed catalog. They were absolutely correct.
I opted to plant seeds for my home use instead of buying the more expensive roots, which are normally males plants. I am not a commercial grower. Next year, the crop should be plentiful and I will be able to harvest over a longer period of time.
Because I have both male and female plants, I also have seeds which will eventually sprout. To my way of thinking, that is an advantage because I want to plant another bed or two. Besides, I already have some people asking me for the young sprouts.
I originally started the seeds in peat pots inside and placed them outside when the weather warmed that year. I had just about a 100 percent success rate. I started a second bed last year but it is too early to say how they pulled through. From what I can see, it doesn't look like the success rate was quite as good.
Purple Passion asparagus can be grown anywhere in North America so it is fairly hardy and does add some unique colors in the vegetable garden. For variety, this spring I bought some Martha Washington asparagus seeds which I need to plant in the next week or so. For a good recipe, aparagus lasagna, click on the title.
In an unrelated matter, the woodland Jack-in-the Pulpits are growing nicely in the woods and will be the next post. I have some photos from last week, but the plants should be in full bloom color in the next few days.

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