Saturday, February 18, 2017

Springing up

It's spring!
Yeah, I know, it's the middle of February.
The weather, though, is very springlike... mid- to late-springlike.
I discovered these little crocus popping up in front of the house a few days ago. Since then they've opened to full and I've found more things starting to pop through the ground, like a tiny cluster of winter aconite. Is that all the winter aconite I'll have this year? Last year several clusters were scattered about. I hope a few more appear.

With such warm weather over this past week and more in the forecast, I am seriously considering putting some seeds in the ground. I might start with spinach, since it much prefers sprouting in cooler soil. Yesterday I moved some of the hay mulch and found lovely little spinach plants where I'd planted them last fall -- not many, because I had trouble getting much germination, but we'll have a bit of early spinach. Carrots, beets and a few others also might get planted, whatever stands a chance of surviving if we get some late cold weather in April. I hesitate planting, though, because it has also been very dry -- not a good companion for being unusually warm.

Even though the weather is springlike, I am still in the midst of winter chores. Last week I pruned the elderberries -- severely pruned them. Yet I wonder if that was even severe enough. At least they won't get quite so overgrown this year. Elderberries can get a little unruly. They send up multiple suckers throughout the growing season. If I can keep up with cutting back the suckers I don't want through mid- to late-spring, I can keep some moderate control. The suckers slow down during the summer. That can be a tricky prospect since spring is the time I've got so much other stuff to do, but I do my best.

I love my elderberries, which are the native species and grow as large shrubs. The berries make a wondrous jam and provide many nutrients, as well as being touted as a flu preventative. Most of the research in this area has been done on products made with the European elder berry (Sambucus nigra), but the American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) is considered to possess similar properties. The flavor of the berry doesn't lend well to fresh eating, especially since the seed contains a toxin that can cause digestive issues, so they shouldn't be eaten fresh in more than small handful doses. However, the toxin is destroyed by heat, so cooked, ripe berries are perfectly safe and lend themselves well to cooked dishes, especially when blended with other, sweeter fruits.

My elderberry jam is seasoned with cinnamon, clove and cardamom, and acidified with lemon juice, which complements the elderberry's flavor nicely. I sweeten with honey, in much lower quantities than typical jam and jelly recipes require. When I use those larger amounts of sweetener I taste nothing but sugar. The point of jams and jellies is to taste the fruit. So I use a pectin that gels with low sugar quantities or no sugar at all. One combination that I've found to be quite nice is to mix gooseberries with the elderberries. Love it.

The European elder has a great history and is the subject of much legend and folklore, which I will discuss in a future post. The magical and medicinal associations with the elderberry were what first got me interested in growing it. But it's also a gorgeous shrub, especially when it blooms mid-summer. My enthusiasm for it does not diminish at all when I'm constantly pruning out suckers in an attempt to keep it from taking over everything. I am quite drawn to plants that take care of themselves so well and force me to stay present enough to notice when I must whack out something. I can't really expect everyone to understand my love for this plant, so I won't try to explain it. However, I will offer more information at a later date. In the meantime, those of you who are in my region and freaking out over the unusually warm weather -- Relax, Enjoy. Freaking out won't change it. Just enjoy the pretty flowers.

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