Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Immortals

Thoreau once referred to ferns as immortal, and perhaps they are.
At 360 million years old, ferns or pteridophytes 
are one of the oldest plant species on earth.
They do not flower, nor do they produce seed. 
They spread by releasing spores into the air,
which could sound a bit like the plot for a bad science fiction movie,
except it is one of the things that make ferns enchanting and unique.

There are many different varieties of ferns growing in the woodlands of Virginia.
I don't know the different names, 
but discovering a bed of  lacy and graceful green fronds 
tucked in the undergrowth makes for a memorable image.
They create kind of a visual poetry.

Since our house is situated in a humid lowland
that I affectionately refer to as a swamp,
we find ferns fairly easy to grow 
although we have some that haven't achieved the degree of lushness we expected,
probably because they are in dry shade. 
For three years now, we've just kind of looked at them every so often 
and wondered if they'll ever get as tall as the garden center said they would.
I've concluded their reputation for height and breadth is a rumor.

But we have plenty of others.
We usually have a dozen or more Boston ferns 
hanging from shepherd hooks or perching on stands each summer. 
They grow easily and make it look like we know more about gardening than we really do.
And, of course, there is my great-grandmother's springeri fern
which in recent years has been asked to vacation in the garage over winter
to avoid shedding needles all over the carpet.
But it loves being outside during the other seasons.
This week it has bloomed with tiny white flowers:

Another fern I have is my perennial favorite, the maidenhair fern.
The maidenhair fern is oh-so-delicate 
and I have easily bought and killed at least three in recent years.
But I may be learning the proper way to treat it. 
I moved it out of the partially sunny spot I had placed it in 
and moved it under the patio umbrella. 
Suddenly, it is happy and its frilly leaves are no longer
browning and curling up at the ends:

Maidenhair ferns are supposed to be edible
or  used medicinally for colds if steeped in hot water to make a tisane.
But I can't imagine shearing this lacy beauty and poaching its leaves.
Despite assurances about its safety,
I remain reticent about serving ferns up on a salad plate or in a tea cup.
Some things should remain food for the soul.

Monday, July 30, 2012

To be in Need of Parsley

Although my 8-day series on herbs as characterized 
in the old Saxon and English herbals ended several days ago,
something happened today that made me go back to the Coats book
"Flowers and their Histories" to see what she had to say about parsley.

This fresh green herb, so casually tossed on plates as garnish
or chopped in salads and soups for flavor, 
turns out to have once had a dubious reputation.
Parsley was associated with death by the ancient Greeks,
who Coats says placed wreaths of parsley on the heads of victors in funeral games,
a sport that I really can't say I understand even after researching it.
Regardless, this practice led to an expression used
when someone fell ill with no hope of recovery. 
In that case, they were euphemistically said "to be in need of parsley."

Well today, my parsley is in need of parsley.
The pre-butterfly caterpillars have arrived en masse
and it looks like they plan to stay 
until the parsley resembles a crop descended upon by locusts.
Since returning from my trip west of the Shire,
I had looked at my parsley plant daily for some sign 
that the caterpillars were foraging for strength 
to transform themselves into delicate flying creatures.
Yet, every day my parsley was lush and green, 
so I began to think I could keep it for myself. 
And then this morning, I was tending my plants, 
and what was all over the green stalks that used to be my parsley?

These twins:

And these quadruplets:

Two more up high make ten:

Here's a close up view of one big boy wearing a bumble bee t-shirt:

I have to say this is the first time I ever saw so many on one plant.
I just hope once they turn into beautiful butterflies 
they will remember who planted the parsley they gorged themselves on
and flutter across my yard a few times to show me their new wings.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Golf Fox

We sometimes see a fox run through the woods behind our house.
I'm always surprised at how slender they are,
how long and dark their legs, 
and how noisy are the sounds they make.
One spring a couple of years ago,
we were awakened several nights 
by male foxes barking to attract female mates.
It was the first time I'd ever heard foxes bark,
 and they were raucous and persistent.
Thankfully, such impassioned fox barking
is an uncommon occurrence under our windows, 
and it's been awhile since we've seen foxes in our woods.
But they've been seen elsewhere, sometimes in unusual locations.

My husband is an avid golfer, 
in part because he enjoys the opportunity it gives him
to be outdoors in nature.
And a local golf course where he frequently plays 
has afforded him a chance to see wildlife on more than one occasion.
Specifically, there is at least one fox--or more--  
that has assigned itself the role of course mascot:

Earlier this spring, along a treeline on the course,
my husband saw a mother fox playing with two of her baby kits.
More recently, he saw her teaching one of them how to hunt.
He said she would first crouch down 
and then the kit would follow her lead.
Then she laid low and stalked a squirrel while the kit watched,
and later the squirrel was the guest of honor at their luncheon.
Here a fox follows a golf cart:

And just last week, my husband reported
that a young fox came out from the woods, lay quietly,
and watched the men as they teed-off: 

Here it is in profile,
apparently deciding the ball is not lunch-worthy:

As far back as the 11th century in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles,
foxes have been described as clever and cunning.
So maybe the foxes on the course are just lulling the golfers
into a false sense of security
before they start stealing golf balls, driving the carts away,
and inviting the slowest golfer to be the guest of honor at lunch.
But such behavior would be crazy
--like a fox.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

From There to Here : Crepe Myrtle

Our table at Magpie's, 
the cute cafe in St. Charles, Missouri that I mentioned yesterday, 
was on a mid-level terrace next to a bed of chameleon plant, 
the plant I referred to as the real "devil's ivy" in an earlier blog
because of its invasive habit. 
I made a point of inspecting the edges of the bed 
and the stone tiles on the terrace
for any sign of a leafy upstart that refused to stay in its place.
But in this drier environment, 
the plant appeared well-behaved and looked quite attractive. 

But the other thing I made note of from my vantage point 
was a most beautiful deep ruby red crepe myrtle
growing on a higher terrace:

I don't recall ever seeing crepe myrtle trees 
(also spelled crape myrtle) 
 in Missouri when I was a kid,
so when I first came to Norfolk in the mid-1970s,
the hundreds and hundreds of watermelon-colored crepe myrtle trees 
that lined the streets captured my attention in a big way.
They were stunning. By some estimates, 
there are as many as 40,000 crepe myrtle trees planted 
in public medians in Norfolk alone. 
And that doesn't include the thousands decorating other Tidewater cities.

One reason the crepe myrtles are so popular 
is the smoothness of their ruddy trunks;
the sculptural quality they take on during the winter;
and the profusion of blooms in pale pink, 
violet, oyster white, watermelon, and deep red 
that begin in late June and reach full vibrancy and fullness in July.
Here are a few pretties blooming around the Shire:


oyster white:

lipstick pink:

my favorite, watermelon:

According to Steve Bender, in the online article 
"Southern Gardening: Crepe Myrtles in Charleston"
published in Southern Living Magazine,
crepe myrtles are indigenous to China
but first arrived in Charleston, South Carolina 
in the 1780s by way of Britain.
Fortunately for us, the crepe myrtle thrives in our hot, sunny summers.

Yet planted too near driveways their falling blossoms are quite a nuisance,
covering pavement and automobile alike. 
While I don't care for tracking spent blossoms 
and tree debris into my house,
I have to admit, when recently I saw
a car covered in fuschia crepe myrtle blossoms 
it made my heart stir just a little
because it looked like someone had tossed bright pink confetti 
all over the trunk and rear window
in some kind of summer celebration.
Of course, the intensity of one's delight 
would depend on whose car got covered,
but there's no denying the frilly petals bring gladness
wherever they are.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Relics of the Past

Strolling through a town's historic district 
often yields unexpected discoveries.
 Like many towns in America, 
St. Charles, Missouri contains a few relics 
from the past that have quietly endured through time.
In addition to the iron door handles I mentioned,
there was this item outside the door 
of Magpie's, a charming outdoor cafe 
which had terraced patios rising like stair steps up the hill:

It is an old boot scraper, 
designed to remove dirt and mud from patrons' boots.
And it appears to have been recently used, 
likely by someone who had walked along the muddy river bank 
just a short distance from the town's Main Street.
Then flush from their exercise, 
they probably decided to enjoy Magpie's fare.
If so, I  would recommend to them for their next visit
 the delicious crepes made with fresh, sweet peaches. 

Sweet desserts aside, 
the boot scraper in the St. Charles photo is handsomely linear,
reminiscent of plain talking, straightforward prairie folks.
I have a more ornate boot scraper 
that I bought from an antique store in the Virginia Piedmont.
It is decorated with curves and flourishes,
and I use it as an attractive door stop:
The Virginia one may have come from a more expensive plantation home,
but I never learned its provenance.
But seeing the St. Charles boot scraper reminded me of mine, 
and then I also remembered one my grandmother 
had outside her front door that was a cut-out of a dachshund.
To remove the dirt from shoes, 
the person would "scratch" the dog's back with the sole of his shoe.
That's probably why I like boot scrapers. 
My brothers and sisters and I 
always wanted to use Grandma's boot scraper 
so we could scratch the dog's back.

Another relic I encountered during my trip
was this limestone gutter, cut and laid by slave labor
in Arrow Rock, Missouri, a stop on the old Santa Fe Trail:

Of course, the most unusual relic of the past 
was this thing we saw in St. Charles at the Lewis and Clark Museum.
It's called a bullboat:

The one in the above photo is a reproduction of bullboats 
built by members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Mandan Indian tribesmen showed them how to make them, 
and four of Lewis and Clark's men 
floated in two down the Yellowstone River on the return trip.
The interior is framed with willow:

When we were there, 
the bullboat was tucked into a corner 
of the theater and exhibition room,
so it's a little difficult to make out the beast's tail, 
but it sticks straight up like a rudder:
To the modern eye, this boat looks a bit grotesque, 
but there is a common adage that applies: 
necessity is the mother of invention.
I'd say the bullboat and the other relics I saw are good examples.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Flowers of The Little Hills

One of the nice things about traveling in the summer
is seeing flowers everywhere one goes.
Yesterday I shared some photos of gardens 
along Main Street in St. Charles, Missouri,
once known as "The Little Hills" or in French, Les Petite Cotes.
Today, some of the historic district's beautiful flowers and plants are on display.
For example, here is a pot of begonias that has reached a stunning size:

And planted around the base of the column which held the begonia pot
was this mound of lantana, coleus, and sweet potato vine:

Nothing pleases people more than the ancient art of topiary.
The gardener's combination of skill and whimsy delighted
all who happened by the clipped greenery when I was there. 

Here is a gathering of butterflies adorning an alley:

and nearby, the symmetry of kissing swans:

And speaking of whimsy, 
this house had loads of it right out the back door:

I know in yesterday's blog I mentioned this thing called a bull boat,
but it is incongruous with photos of  flowers, topiaries, 
and brightly colored wind toys,
so tomorrow we will journey back to the early 1800s
and see just what it is.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Another Main Street

Earlier this summer, I described the charm of Smithfield, Virginia,
from its landmark Smithfield Inn to some of the more artistic sensibilities 
demonstrated along Main Street.
Recently I explored another historic street that has retained its past: 
Main Street in St. Charles, Missouri, 
originally founded in the mid-18th century 
by a French fur trader named Blanchette, 
who called  the settlement Les Petites Cotes or "The Little Hills."

St. Charles was later home to Daniel Boone 
(who was born near Reading, Pennsylvania), 
and the starting point for the Western Expedition
of Virginians Lewis and Clark.

Situated along the banks of the Missouri River, 
Main Street is paved with bricks, 
their edges worn soft through centuries of use.
It gives the town an old-world feel 
and makes it easy for one to imagine they have stepped back in time,
or in some cases, stumbled back, for old brick streets can be uneven.
 And along the small hills that rise from the river, 
there are terraced gardens like this one:  

And gardens protected by antique brick and iron fences 
capped with ornate finials:

And some gardens that looked very, very Virginia to me:

Another thing I noticed when I was there: 
many of the older buildings had sturdy doors with iron handles, 
and some of them had been wrapped to protect patrons' hands 
from the hot metal, caused when temperatures neared 108 degrees.
Grabbing a hot metal handle would definitely be something to remember.

Tomorrow, I will show you some other memorable sights in St. Charles,
from summery topiaries to a most unusual item called a bull boat.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

West of the Shire

On July 24, 1801, Meriwether Lewis, 
personal secretary to President Thomas Jefferson 
and Jefferson's fellow Virginian, neighbor, and family friend,
provided Jefferson with a roster of all commissioned US Army officers.
Historians have evidence that the curious symbols on the list prepared by Lewis
signified each officer's loyalty to the President.
The roster exemplified Lewis's knowledge of  the US Army
and, coupled with Lewis's experience in the western territories,  
prompted Jefferson to choose Lewis to head the expedition 
to the Pacific Ocean and back again in 1803.

I bring this up because I recently visited what was once the Louisiana Territory
and within it, the starting point for the Lewis and Clark Expedition: 
the river town today called St. Charles, Missouri.

Missouri River at St. Charles:

It was there that I learned Lewis and Clark were both native Virginians,
Lewis having been born in Albemarle County and Clark in Caroline County.
These facts had heretofore escaped my attention.
Even though I lived in Missouri for a time and often drove by the road signs 
erected to commemorate the Lewis and Clark Trail, 
I didn't know much about the two men beyond their role in exploring the West.
Their life stories are really quite fascinating, 
and as many know, Lewis's demise is surrounded with mystery.
But here in this blog, we will explore the lighter side.
Join me tomorrow for a glimpse 
of the charming place where western expansion took root.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Rosemary for Remembrance

If origanum, the species that includes oregano and marjoram,
is the prince of herbs, then surely, rosemary must be the king.
There is no herb more intensely fragrant
nor more attractive in a garden hedge than rosemary.
So it's the best one for ending the eight-day series on herbs.


A fourteenth-century manuscript (cited in Coats)
gives some idea about how beloved this herb has been through the centuries.
I'm reproducing it here using modern orthography:

of the best shall be our speech
that ever was found in book of kind
man, at need have it in mind
this herb is called rosemary
of virtue that is good and fine.

Coats tells us that rosemary was cultivated in England prior to the eleventh century, 
and it is described in the Old Saxon and later herbals
as a cure for a number of ailments,
including those caused by evil spirits, "foul" dreams,
gout, tooth decay, and of course, the plague.
Inhaling its scent was said to keep one youthful.

Coats and other sources confirm that rosemary
has long been associated with remembrance, both literally and symbolically.
Students in Greece entwined rosemary in their hair as an aid to memory,
and in the Elizabethan era, Sir Thomas More described it as
"sacred to remembrance and therefore to friendship."

Rosemary figures large in herbal histories
which recount its use not just for ailments and aiding memory,
but also using the oldest wood for crafting combs,
musical instruments, and carpenter's rules.

My favorite rosemary reference from Coats
is the one she ends her section on rosemary with.
Unfortunately, she doesn't mention the source of this tradition:

It seems that women with marriage on their minds
are warned against a man who
"passeth by the rosemary
and careth not to take a spray"
because such a man will never care about  love.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Take Heed Ye Smellers of Basil

There is one herb that above all others symbolizes summer to me,
and that is basil. 
I adore the fragrance of basil,
and even though I may not cook with it at all during summer, 
I always plant  some because  just brushing the leaves 
 to release their delicious odor is sufficient for me.

So it is a good thing that I did not live during the early to mid-1500s
when basil was widely considered  a "sinister" poisonous plant.
Alice M. Coats' includes in her book Flowers and their Histories
a story first published in Thomas Lupton's A Thousand Notable Things:
It seems Jacobus Hollerius, a well-regarded doctor,
warned ignorant yet willful "smellers of basil" 
against a fate that had befallen an Italian who so frequently smelled basil 
that a scorpion bred inside his head and eventually killed him,
but only after a long, agonizing illness.

Another physician, this one living in Italy,
confirmed Hollerius's point of view,
explaining that basil placed under a stone for two days
would indeed produce a scorpion.
And Coats also includes the herbalist William Turner's advice
that basil is only "'good for the stryking [striking] of a se [sea] dragon.''

But with time, basil's good reputation was restored.
John Gerard, who published his herbal in 1697, avowed that 
"' the smell of basil is good for the heart ... it taketh away sorrowfulness ... ."
Parkinson, also cited in Coats, explains that basil's chief properties
were able to "'procure a cheerefull and merry heart.'"

So with these reassurances,
 I will continue to enjoy the fragrance of basil
--without fear of hatching scorpions.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

For the Panting and the Passion

A couple of summers ago,
I planted a row of nine lavender plants 
which have lately grown into a lovely small hedge
near a side door on our house.
Every time we walk by, 
the rich sweet scent of lavender is released into the air.
That's a perfume that has been enjoyed through the centuries.


Even so, lavender isn't discussed that much
in the books I've read that describe the very oldest English herbals,
for example, Leech's Book of Bald
(a leech was a physician, Bald the author),
which suggests that early Saxon healers relied 
more heartily on other herbs.
For example, bettony was said to be good for diseases caused by elves.

But lavender finds more mention in the later 16th- and 17th-century herbals,
such as the ones by Turner, Gerard, and Parkinson.
Usually lavender is prescribed for diseases of the head like colds,.
Alice M. Coats tells us that Turner recommended lavender 
be sewn into a cap for the wearer's benefit, 
and that Gerard suggested "lavender in various forms" 
was effective against "'the panting and passion of the hart.'"
But lavender was also thought to protect against the bubonic plague.

I have grown lavender off and on through the years,
sewn the dried flower buds into sachets;
tossed the dried stalks onto fireplace coals to scent a room in winter;
and in the last few years, I've collected and tried a few recipes.
My favorite is to add 2 tablespoons of lavender buds 
to sugar cookie dough. 
The first time I made lavender cookies,
 I feared they might taste like soap,
but the lavender imparts only a hint of its flavor.
The cookies freeze very well,
so they can be enjoyed for weeks after baking;
or pulled out as a defense against a panting heart,
or worse, a pestilent elf  if there's no bettony in the house.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Ambrosial Scent

A small bed of mint grew at the west end of the porch
on the house where I grew up.
It had already been growing there 
when my parents bought the place in 1953, 
and may have been planted by one of the previous owners
who had lived there since the early 1900s.
Perhaps even before that.
It was--and is--a very old plant.


 I took a start of that mint when my husband and I
 bought our first home in the 1980s,
and I have planted a new start everywhere we've lived.
Mint dies back completely every winter,
so I am always relieved to see the first green shoots emerge each spring.
Mint loves moisture and is one of the few herbs, basil is another,
that will root and live in water.
And I have used that technique 
to increase the number of mint plants I grow each year,
but only because it is a plant that needs to be grown in a container
since it spreads prodigiously if allowed.

Maybe that is why mint has been so easily cultivated for centuries. 
Alice M. Coats says mint or myntys 
was likely introduced to England by the Romans,
which would have been well before the fifth century.
Not surprising for an herb that brings such pleasure.

According to Coats, the herbalist Gerard described mint  as having a scent 
that would "'stirre up the minde and the taste to a greedie desire ... '"
Coats also cites E. A. Bowles, who described mint rotundifolia
as the best variety for making mint sauce,
"'the ambrosial scent of which makes connoisseurs gaze deeply 
into each others' eyes.'"

I can't say mint has ever had such serious effects on me,
but it has been the source of  plenty of happy moments.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Prince of Herbs

Origanum, the species to which both oregano and marjoram belong,
has been cultivated in one variety or another for centuries.
According to www.herbsociety.org/factsheets/oregano, 
the ancient Egyptians grew origanum more than 3000 years ago,
and the Hittites engraved images of the plant even earlier: 1600 BCE.
The Herb Society fact sheet cites R. Le Strange 1977 and Ernest Small 1997 
as saying the herb was often referred to as the "Prince of Herbs"
--probably because of its medicinal, culinary, and religious uses.

Alice M. Coats, in Flowers and their Histories
says the ancient Greeks referred to the plant as
"joy of the mountains" and often decorated 
the graves of their ancestors with the herb 
because it was supposed to ensure a peaceful eternal rest.
Coats also says it was a popular wedding flower 
because its sweet scent was said to be the result 
of the herb having been touched by Venus herself.

Origanum vulgare, or wild marjoram, 
is described as an English native by Coats.
She also cites Nicholas Culpeper, 
who pronounced the herb 'exceedingly grateful,'
no doubt because of the herb's reputation as a healer of all sorts of infirmities,
most interestingly, ''wambling of the stomache.''
Elinour Sinclair Rohde in her book The Old English Herbals
says that 16th-century herbalist John Gerard 
recommended wearing sweet marjoram  
for those persons "who are given to over-much sighing."


Coats also has an interesting story about origanum,
probably derived from Aristotle's observations
about origanum being an antidote to venom,
which I will paraphrase here:
It seems a tortoise would eat  some of the herb before fighting serpents
because it gave him great strength.
But one day a serpent spied the tortoise fortifying himself,
and so cut it up and removed it to foil his advantage. 
The tortoise found himself deprived 
and therefore perished from the serpent's bite.

On a more positive note, Coats tells us that the herb 
was also good for drawing out thorns and splinters
and healing toothaches.
The Herb Society describes a more romantic use, 
one described in a number of  their sources.
According to folklore,
 if a young woman wanted to know who would one day be her husband,
she should place origanum in her bed before she slept.
Then in the night, Aphrodite would appear to her
and reveal his image.
Interesting that her prince charming appears to her 
with help from the prince of herbs.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Master of the Forest

Years ago I planted some sweet woodruff  in one of the flower beds
that we had laid out under some black cherry trees.
The sweet woodruff didn't grow as well there as I had hoped;
however, I was able to preserve some of it through drying. 

In the years after we sold that house, 
I kept the dried sweet woodruff inside a glass box,
probably because I had always intended to use it in a recipe I had for May wine.
And I thought it would be fun to honor my German ancestry 
by celebrating May Day with mai wein.
But the dried sweet woodruff remained overlooked for some years.
When I did finally happen upon the box,
the woodruff smelled as sweet as the day I dried it.
Maybe that is one reason why sweet woodruff, asperula odorata,
is called waldmeister or "master of the forest" in German.

sweet woodruff:

But sweet woodruff is not just a German plant, of course.
It has been celebrated in England for centuries as well.
In Flowers and their Histories, Alice M. Coats says that Queen Elizabeth
would bestow a sprig of sweet woodruff on those she favored.
Coats also quotes the herbalist Gerard, who describes sweet woodruff
"'being made up into garlands or bundles, 
and hanged up in houses in the heate of sommer,
in order to "attemper the aire, coole, and make fresh the place...' "

Earlier this summer, 
I planted some sweet woodruff  in a cool, shady, and moist spot.
Thus far it sits, still green, 
but hardly the lush and invasive groundcover I've read it to be.
Perhaps next year it will find its way
and I'll finally make that May wine.
Or I'll tie it into garlands and freshen up the place.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Some Sage Advice

Today's is the second blog in an 8-day series on herbs.
This one concerns sage.
I have a few varieties of sage in my garden:
common sage, golden sage, variegated sage, purple sage, 
and one of my favorites, pineapple sage.
They are new plants so still very small, 
but sage has a way of growing large and vigorous
when left to its own devices.
Perhaps that vitality is why, historically, 
sage is said to impart immortality to anyone 
who eats it or drinks tea made from it.

golden sage:
 pineapple sage:
  variegated sage:

But the real story I want to share about sage is one described by Alice M. Coats
in her book Flowers and their Histories.
Coats says this story is from the 14th-century Italian author Giovannai Boccaccio.
I'm paraphrasing Coats' report  here:
It seems a certain man was strolling with his paramour through a garden.
He reached down, plucked some sage leaves, 
rubbed them over his teeth and gums,
and promptly fell dead.
His  lady companion was questioned about his death 
and subsequently the judge and others in the court accompanied her to the garden.
She described her lover's death, then took a leaf 
and demonstrated how he had rubbed the sage across his teeth.
She too fell dead upon the ground, much to the shock of all attending.
The judge ordered that the bed of sage be torn up and burned.
And under the sage was found a toad,
who had "infected the Sage with his venomous breath."
This was a warning, then, to all who would clean their teeth 
with the nubby leaf of a sage plant.

I must say I already knew about using a sage leaf for polishing one's teeth.
My mom showed this to me when I was a child, 
and I have rubbed a leaf against my teeth whenever sage has been at hand.
Believe me, 
there is no match for the fabulous way it makes one's teeth feel 
when the tongue is run across them.
It's easy to see why the man in Boccaccio's story 
would have been unable to resist the sage leaf's charms,
especially if he had in mind stealing a kiss from his lady.
But perhaps good advice is good advice, 
regardless of the century in which it comes.
So follow this ancient admonition to "look before you leap."
Check for toads in beds of sage and  follow the wisest course.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Elecampane and Eletelephony

Through the years I have planted small herb gardens 
at the places I have lived.
Sometimes just a strawberry pot full,
sometimes a whole garden of herbs.
But always some.
And currently, despite the lack of full sun in all my potential planting areas,
I have a few herbs slowly growing here in the Shire.

But I persist, having always loved the versatility and history of herbs.
Recently I have discovered a couple of old plant books
whose authors had the privilege of studying manuscripts
of some of the best known early English herbals;
for example, Leech's, Gerard's, and Parkinson's, among others.

So I decided to write an 8-day series on herbs, starting today with elecampane.
But my research immediately digressed--not a bad thing in some cultures
because digression in writing is expected and respected,
just not here in the U.S.
Even so, I decided to cover both the herb elecampane
and the poem that comes into my head 
every time I see the herb's name in print:
"Eletelephony" by Laura E. Richards.

We'll start with elecampane.
According to the book "Flowers and their Histories"
by Alice M. Coats,
elecampane, inula helenium, is a tall yellow-blooming plant
that has become naturalized in Europe and America.
Coats says that the herb is called inula helenium
because Helen of Troy was said to have been holding
a bouquet of elecampane
when "Paris carried her away to Phrygia."
Coats also explains that elecampane
was favored by Empress Julia Augusta.
 "A Modern Herbal" by Margaret Grieve,
published by www.botanical.com,
attributes this information to Pliny, who wrote
 that the Empress chewed elecampane root daily
because it was thought to be help "digestion and cause mirth."
I don't have any elecampane growing and have never seen it here.
But for photos of elecampane, search "elecampane"
in Google Images. They have some good ones.
For me, the alliterative effect of the first two syllables
 in elecampane and "eletelephony"
cause these two words to be immediately associated.

So to start, a brief biographical sketch
of Pulitzer Prize winner Laura E. Richards,
from this web site:
According to C. D. Merriman,
Richards was the daughter of Samuel Gridley Howe
who co-founded the school for the deaf
where Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller were students.
And Richards' mother was Julia Ward Howe,
who wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
Richards wrote "Eletelephony" as part of her 1918 book Tirra Lirra.
Here it is:

Once there was an elephant,
Who tried to use the telephant --
No! No! I mean an elephone
Who tried to use the telephone --
(Dear me! I am not certain quite
That even now I've got it right.)

Howe'er it was, he got his trunk
Entangled in the telephunk;
The more he tried to get it free,
The louder buzzed the telephee --
(I fear I'd better drop the song
Of elephop and telephong!)

It's a fun poem, and like elecampane,
guaranteed to bring mirth.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Catching the Dew

Let your life lightly dance on the edges of Time
like dew on the tip of a leaf.
                               --Rabindranath Tagore

I keep several strawberry plants, 
but not because of any illusions that our few plants hiding half in the shade
and crowded by a gangling stevia plant and some rosemary
will ever produce a large crop of sweet, juicy berries.
No, they are planted because they remind us of family.
My husband's mother always grew strawberries when he was a boy,
as did my parents and grandparents.

I harvested some herbs yesterday morning before the heat set in
and the chirring of insects still filled the air.
And I saw something I had never seen before, 
and it was stunning in its simplicity.

The fringed edges of the strawberry leaves 
held clear and perfect drops of dew:

Perhaps this is the origin of the candlewick pattern.
Regardless, it is amazing what a little dew can do.
Of course, Gibran said it more eloquently:

For in the dew of little things 
the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.

A nice thought for greeting a summer Sunday.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

A Dragonfly by any other Name

Although current American pop culture tends to describe 
dragonflies as primarily symbolic of attributes 
like self-realization or positive change,
dragonflies in American folklore tell a much different story,
one unrelated to the cultural symbolism discussed in yesterday's blog.

And the differences start with the name.
The lexicon of each American regional dialect 
contains competing names for many words and terms,
and the name for dragonfly varies from region to region.

People who love words should become familiar
with the Dictionary of American Regional English,
a project started decades ago by the American Dialect Society
and whose last volume was only recently published.
The DARE project's objective is to preserve and document
American regionalisms--not slang terms, 
but the words and phrasings that help comprise American dialects 
and make them unique.
The project has a fascinating web site with tons of information,
including audio samples and sample lists of synonyms, 
including a listing of dragonfly terms by region.

Terms for dragonflies are often rooted in American folklore
and generally can be divided into two main categories: 
those associating dragonflies with needles
and those associating dragonflies with snakes.
According to DARE, dragonflies are called sewing needles, darning needles,
or eye stitchers, primarily in northern regions of the US.
And why needles? 
According to the University of Kentucky Entomology
web site maintained by Blake Newton: 

dragonflies were believed to be 
capable of sewing up a person's lips or ears. 
This association with ears would also explain why
DARE lists "ear cutters" as a regional synonym for dragonflies.
All rather grisly prospects from a flying insect
that seems to delight so many of us nowadays.

But there is apparently a more nurturing
--if dubious--side to dragonflies.
The DARE site lists these other dragonfly synonyms:
 snake doctor, snake feeder, snake guarder,
snake heeder, and snake waiter.

On the University of Kentucky web site,
Newton provides a plausible folk explanation for 
the inclusion of "snake" in so many terms for dragonfly.
He includes a comment from Earlane Cox,
who explains that dragonflies were once thought  
to care for the needs of snakes,
even helping snakes raise their little baby snakes.
Snake appellations seem to be more common in the southern US,
where dragonflies and snakes are found in proximity
to swamps and marshes.

DARE says that in Hawaii,
dragonflies are called "globe skimmers."
I'll use that as a synonym for dragonflies from now on.
It evokes images of a benign creature 
taking gentle flight on a summer day.
That shouldn't give any of us nightmares.

Friday, July 13, 2012


When we were at Bells Mill Park recently,
we could barely walk two steps 
without encountering dozens of electric-blue dragonflies.
They seemed to alight on every blade of meadow grass they could find.
Unphased by the heat, 
 they demonstrated an amazing ability to hover in the air,  
to fly forward and back, and up and down. 
According to Sarah Zielinski's blog "Surprising Science"
in Smithsonian Magazine online,
the dragonfly has been doing just that 
for much of its incredible 300-million-year history.
Imagine how exciting it would be to find an ancient fossil
imprinted with the outline of a dragonfly.
A photo is the next best thing.
Scroll down on this next link to see a dragonfly fossil
that is over 150 million years old, found in Bavaria Germany :


Here around our house, dragonflies are plentiful too.
They particularly favor a shepherd's hook we have for hanging plants 
and an iron US Calvary picket I bought from an antiques dealer.
If I were superstitious, I might wonder why the dragonflies
seem to always be at hand this summer.
Some people would see their arrival as an other-worldly sign.

In American popular culture, 
the dragonfly has been described
as symbolizing an ever-widening range of qualities 
from death to strength and self-realization to power and purpose.
But much of what is said to be dragonfly symbolism appears to be apocryphal.
The reality is much richer.

I found this fascinating web site
 that documents dragonfly references in art and culture:

The author is Ron Lyons, who identified himself as a 10-year volunteer
for the Chula Vista Nature Center in California..
It appears the web site may have been last updated in the 1990s,
but it is full of well-researched and well-documented information.
For example, one source cited by Lyons 
informs the question about dragonfly symbolism: 
"An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols 
by J. C. Cooper pg 56 1960 
(reissued from 1931 with a slightly different name)
- can share butterfly symbolism of immortality and regeneration 
- Native Americans - whirlwind, swiftness, activity 
- China - summer, instability, weakness 
- Japan - national emblem of the Dragonfly Island, 
also irresponsibility, unreliability"

The idea of regeneration is about the only symbol 
connected to current pop culture;
I doubt many would want to claim the idea that dragonflies 
also symbolize irresponsibility or weakness.
But China's idea that the dragonfly symbolizes "summer"  
sounds like something we could all agree with.

The Lyons site also confirms 
that dragonflies are important symbols 
in both the Zuni Indian and Japanese cultures.
For more details about dragonflies and their meaning in Japanese culture,
this web site is also very good:

Plus there is a photo of a bright red dragonfly.