Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Lettuce Have Fun

The peas have set blooms. My mouth drools at the thought of tender, sweet snap peas ready to pick, and better yet crunching in my mouth.

Have you ever taken a close look at pea blossoms, delicate little fairy flowers? Pretty things, aren't they?

As I wait for the pea pods to appear, I'm picking lettuce. Tender lettuce to go into my salads, along with spinach (which is bolting and won't be around much longer), arugula and baby mustard greens. I pull crisp radishes to slice among the green things (they won't be around much longer, either) and wait for the carrots to get big enough to pull.In a few weeks I can shred a bit of cabbage into the salads, as well.

Even these pretty pea blossoms could go into the salad to add a hint of pea flavor. But nipping off the flowers means fewer pods, and we can't have that.

While all kinds of things in the garden can be part of a salad, I want to focus on lettuce here. Not many of you get excited about lettuce, I am certain. It's just a salad green. Not much flavor or anything, just bulk. Although not the powerhouse that kale, broccoli and some other green veggies are lettuce still contains nutritional value, offering up vitamin K, folates, and a few others. Forget the iceberg lettuce if you're looking for nutrients, other types possess much more.

Our cultivated lettuce is closely related to this wild prickly lettuce spreading
rampantly through my garden.
Humans have cultivated lettuce for a long, long time. The ancient Egyptians cultivated lettuce at least 6,000 years ago, according to paintings in ancient Egyptian ruins. They started cultivating a wild lettuce for its seed, from which they extracted oil -- probably for food use, medicine, and/or cosmetic purposes. The oil might also have been used in religious ceremonies, as it was sacred to Min, their god of reproduction. They thought lettuce enhanced male virility, symbolized by the plant's ability to suddenly bolt (produce flower/seed stalks) and due to its milky sap. It was a symbol of sexual prowess and a promoter of love and childbearing -- good for both male and female. So they ate tons of it, especially after developing lettuce with succulent leaves.

That leafy lettuce likely was the precursor to today's Romaine lettuce varieties. Lettuce traveled out from Egypt, landing on the plates of Persian kings, apparently, and infiltrating Greek gardens. Today a second common name for romaine lettuce is Cos, named after a Greek island. Incidentally, the Greeks thought lettuce made men impotent, opposite of the Egyptians' view. And Greeks served lettuce at funerals.

Lovely red-splashed Yugoslavian Lettuce.
From Greece lettuce traveled to the Roman empire (not a far piece) where it obtained the name "romaine" lettuce because is was grown in the papal gardens of Rome, and reclaimed its value as an herb that enhances sexual potency. Then it spread through Europe, where it alternated between a fertility enhancer and a fertility detracter. A 17th century aphrodisiac contained lettuce, purslane and mint steeped in vinegar, while in the 19th century, Britons thought it induced infertility and sterility.

Lettuce probably took a much more roundabout path than described above, because it apparently did not reach Greek cultivation for a few thousand years after the Egyptians started cultivating it, and hit Rome several hundred years later. But this is a simple look at its quite long history.

Lettuce still provides Egypt with the seed oil for which it was originally cultivated. I found a couple of Web sites touting its powers as a food oil, cosmetic and medicine. The milky sap of lettuce also possesses medicinal qualities, which likely are far more pronounced in the bitter wild lettuces that weep much greater quantities of the sap. Cultivated lettuce produces more sap once it bolts. The genus name of cultivated and wild lettuces, Lactuca, is Latin for "milk-forming," indicating the sap was its most prominent and/or useful characteristic. The main medicinal use for the sap, as well as the oil, is to promote sleep. That characteristic earned it the name "sleepwort."

I find it interesting that lettuce, which prefers growing in cooler conditions and requires a fair amount of water to stay sweet and tender, originated in a hot, dry region like Egypt. Of course, they most likely did not mind when heat made the lettuce bitter. Our aversion to bitter flavors is a truly recent development and more pronounced in the U.S. than elsewhere. However, bitter flavors improve our digestion, causing the liver to work more effectively. I don't mind when the lettuce gets a little bitter, as a bit of oil and vinegar subdues the bitterness, without reducing its digestive benefits.
Lettuce grows well in containers. All you need is something 6 to 8 inches deep.

Today you can find more than 1,000 named lettuce cultivars, which exhibit many leaf shapes and coloration. I love the red varieties most. The most common types available to the home garden are iceberg/crisphead, leaf/bunched, butterhead, romaine/cos, and Batavian/summer crisp/French crisp. I discovered the Batavian or summer crisp lettuce last year and fell in love with its beautiful, large heads. During recent reading I discovered that it tends to stand longer in summer heat without bolting, so it will be my main summer lettuce. The Batavian, romaine and butterhead lettuces are best set out as transplants (unless you like thinning out direct-sown seedlings) so that you can give them space, like about 12 inches between plants. This gives you beautiful large heads. A more unusual type is Celtuce, or asparagus lettuce, also called "woju" in Asia where it is a delicacy. This type is grown for its tasty stalks.

The varieties now in my garden are Red Salad Bowl and (green) Salad Bowl, which are leaf varieties; Buttercrunch and Yugoslavian (butterhead types, which produce loose heads); Jericho romaine (one of the heat-tolerant varieties); and Concept Batavian. In the past I've tried a crisphead variety, just for kicks, but it didn't want to grow for me at all. I'm not crying over it because I don't consider those varieties worth the trouble. Then, of course, wild prickly lettuce grows everywhere. While technically edible, I don't include it in my wild foods harvest.

Take a stroll through the seed catalog's lettuce selection. Perhaps you won't make lettuce a main part of your garden, but you'll certainly want to try all the different, beautiful varieties.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Try This Black Cap On

Above: These beautiful bronze irises were a gift from someone a number of years ago. They've survived my move nine years ago, but are now in danger of being swamped by a tall yellow iris and a mass of white prairie sage. I frequently forget that they are there and find myself a bit surprised when they bloom. The first blossoms always elicit an "Oh, yeah."

If I can manage to not get lost in all my other tasks, I hope to move some of these unique irises to a less populated spot (as well as dig out some of the prairie sage).

The old-fashioned purple iris also are in bloom and releasing the most heavenly scent. No other iris has such a delicious fragrance. I always look forward to their blooming, as inhaling their scent seems to me like breathing fresh air for the first time in a long time. Alas, their bloom season is short.

Below: And this is my black raspberry tangle.

You should see fence posts with wire strung between them and all of the second-year fruiting canes tied to the wire. Instead, you see a mad tangle, with the second-year canes flopping on the ground, many of them rooted at the end. So, good news, I'll have more black raspberry plants to put somewhere. Bad news, I can't just walk between the three rows. I should have put the fenceposts and wire in last spring, when I planted these monsters. But I didn't. Lots of excuses; but that doesn't change the scenes.

The more upright canes that you see are mostly this year's growth, which will give me berries next year. This tangle got planted in an area that we prepared for potential fruit trees and definitely some kind of berries. We layered wood chips and compost over the area at the edge of the woods. In some place the mulch/compost was at least three feet thick because of the slope toward the rock ledge where the hill drops off. Then we waited for three years as the mulch decomposed and developed a luscious fungal composition that is favored by woodland types.

Black raspberries, also known as "black caps," like well drained soil and full sun to part shade.One Web site noted that with "proper pruning black raspberries behave quite well in the small-scale, edible landscape." As you can see, without proper pruning and support they do not behave well at all, except for the fact that last year's growth now bears numerous blossoms that will turn into my most favorite berry. The little flowers are not as showy as those of blackberries, as their petals are quite small to almost non-existent. But the bees seem to love them, and I certainly love what follows the flowers.

Another Web site noted that black raspberries are not as hardy as red raspberries. Say what? I have found the opposite to be true. I must baby the reds along while the black raspberries go nuts. Black raspberries are hardy in zones 5-8 (I live in zone 6-ish), while the reds might be hardier to a cooler USDA zone, but dislike the heat of our summers. One species of black raspberry is native to Kansas -- and pretty much the entire U.S. east of the Rocky Mountains -- and grows wild in the woods around my home. Another species is native west of the Rockies. I have no idea which species is sold as cultivated varieties, perhaps both, perhaps a hybrid; another avenue for exploration.

The trouble with having wild black raspberries growing in my woods is that they can transmit various diseases to my cultivated ones, as can blackberries and red raspberries. The diseases don't do much to the blackberries and red raspberries, but will affect the black caps over time. So they must be separated -- by at least 100 feet according to one source, or by 300 feet according to another -- and preferably the black raspberries must be downwind from the others to prevent the wind from carrying insects and disease to them. So those wild canes I found growing nearby after planting all those black raspberries must be kept cut down.

In my last post I raved about strawberries, but if I must choose -- if I really must -- the black raspberry edges out the strawberry very slightly as my favorite berry of them all. And what a great berry to have as my favorite. Unless you read nothing about nutrition, you've all learned that blueberries and other berries are "super foods," possessing tons of antioxidants and other powerful nutrients. Black raspberries edge out all the other berries when it comes to antioxidants. The black caps have 10 percent more antioxidants than blueberries (everybody's darling) and 40 percent more than strawberries. This makes them excellent for prevention of cancer, heart disease and other issues.

The dark color of the berries (which aren't "true" berries, but that's another post) indicates the presence of lots of anthocyanins. Their anti-inflammatory action helps with the prevention of many ailments (such as cancer and heart disease). The berries also supposedly help improve vision, memory retention in the elderly, improve cardiovascular health, reduce the risk of high blood pressure, and so on. Other constituents boost all of those effects as well as reduce birth defect risk, improve liver issues and improve wound healing.

The roots and leaves also have been used medicinally. The roots provide a strong laxative effect and can be chewed to relieve coughs and toothaches, as well as treating diarrhea and dysentery. The leaves are highly astringent and can be made into a wash to clear up old and "foul" sores, ulcers and boils.

But I'd rather eat the berries as often as possible for their overall benefits. The berries are so perishable that you rarely find them for sale even in farmers markets. I have occasionally seen bags of frozen ones, and have seen a few items (such as ice cream) flavored with black raspberries. So if you want the wondrous flavor and health benefits of these berries, grow your own. It will be worth it.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Fragrant Berry

The columbines are shedding their flowers, readying to form mature seeds and scatter them everywhere. And the poppies have begun blooming.

This morning their heads were bent from the weight of rain; but as soon as the rain stopped and a breeze sprang up, their petals became light and they lifted their heads.

I do love poppies and only wish they were suitable as cut flowers. However, they wilt as soon as you cut them, And their season of bloom does not last nearly long enough. This year my garden contains poppies from seed that dropped last summer (the ones now beginning their bloom), as well as much smaller poppy plants from seed I scattered in March. That should spread out the bloom time a bit... I hope.
It's also the season of strawberries. I do so love strawberries. And they are good for me, too. The strawberry is ranked among the top most nutritious and beneficial fruits, containing many vitamins and other nutrients, as are most deeply colored berries. The berries are full of antioxidants, anthocyanins, polyphenols, quercitin and other substances that serve as anti-inflammatory agents that help prevent heart disease, cancer and stroke.

Long considered an herb of the heart it symbolizes love, as in "I Love strawberries. And 9-year-olds across the country agree. Some study done somewhere concluded that more than 53 percent of 9-year-olds said the strawberry was their favorite fruit. Only 53 percent? Strawberry must have been second in line for the rest of them. The berry also benefits the physical heart, improving circulatory system function.

Although a sweet, sweet fruit, it can be used to control blood sugar. An acquaintance of mine once told me that she had done a test with several fruits, eating them, then testing her blood sugar. The strawberry was about the only one that did not cause a blood sugar spike. Use them with cinnamon for a double-whammy blood sugar control. They may be helpful in controlling allergies, but also are a common allergen, so beware.

Strawberries also assist with constipation and contain vasodilators that can reduce blood pressure -- the list goes on, especially when you add in the leaves. Strawberry leaf tea is astringent (useful in diarrhea), a diuretic (helps you eliminate excess water), and an infusion can be used as a gargle for sore throat and a wash for minor scrapes and burns. One source noted that the leaf can be used as a substitute for black tea.

The wild wood strawberry is the one most cited as medicinal, but all strawberry species and varieties possess similar properties, although the cultivated ones might not be as strong.

Various species of strawberries grow all over Europe, and are native to North and South America. Our cultivated variety is a hybrid between the common North American Fragaria virginiana and a species from Chile, Fragaria chiloensis. The species name for our cultivated strawberry, of which there are more than 600 varieties, is Fragaria x ananassa.
The strawberry is the subject of many bits of folklore and legend, including a Native American one that tells of a quarrel between a man and woman. The woman left and the man regretted his actions that caused her departure. So he appealed to a sky spirit who placed various wonderful berries in her path. She stopped only upon arriving at a field of strawberries. Eventually, she returned to the man.

If you don't have your own strawberry patch, buy organic strawberries whenever possible, as hundreds of chemicals -- from pesticides to fungicides are used on them. Changing cultivation practices, however, made it possible to grow commercial acreages of organic berries.

Pests and disease are a given in a strawberry patch, but I have never found them troublesome enough to warrant use of even organic-approved pesticides. The snails, slugs and strawberry seed bugs leave enough for me to feast on and store in the freezer. The June-bearing varieties do require "renovation" and feeding in late summer, once production has ceased (which I hope to cover at the appropriate season), but have otherwise been trouble-free for me -- after I put up barriers to keep deer and rabbits from eating the plants. Don't fertilize strawberries in the spring, as that can make the berries soft and spoil more quickly.

Strawberries come in June-bearing varieties (which produce here typically from mid or late May through June), and these come in early-, mid-, and late-season varieties. If you plant some of all three, you can extend your harvest beyond the usual three weeks. Ever-bearing and "day-neutral" varieties produce pretty much all summer, with a bit of a slow-down at some point. However, they do not produce as much overall as the June bearers. I grow an early variety, Early Glow, and one that produces a bit later, Sure Crop. Of the two, Early Glow is my favorite, as Sure Crop berries can be a little on the soft side.

What more can I say about these luscious fruits? Well they aren't "true" berries, but are "accessory fruits." The fleshy part does not form from the ovary walls (as in true fruits), but forms from a bit just behind the bloom. The little seeds, called achenes, that dot the surface of the fruit are the "true" fruits, little dry fruits that form from ovary walls. The seeds are so numerous because each flower contains many little pistils (female flower parts) in the center. The lowly, ground-hugging strawberry is a member of the Rose family, as is the tall and spreading apple, and many of the cane fruits (like raspberries and blackberries, which I hope to address and harvest soon).

Plant strawberries, for "God could have made a better berry, but he didn't." (An old saying.)

One more thing...
While researching strawberries, I came across a recipe for Strawberry Salad, which included strawberries (of course), cucumbers and black pepper. If I manage to have fresh strawberries and cucumbers at the same time, I may try it. Sounds interesting.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Growing Wild

On Saturday the morning sun glittered off the columbines beaded with rain. This morning, the sun, as it barely peeked over the trees, spotlighted the crowd of red and yellow, drooping flowers. A few weeks ago, when the first of these "wild" columbines bloomed, I felt my heart sing as I looked at it.

The flock of columbines fills the view from my front window these days, brightening what would otherwise be varied shades of green, until the yellow iris, and Asiatic lilies bloom.
It won't be long before I begin ruthlessly cutting down the pretty columbines. Yes, they are beautiful and give me great joy, but they spread their seed with abandon and I think we have enough of them growing in the flowers beds -- Don't you?

I will, however, collect seed again; to share or to scatter in places where I want their beauty to shine.They do seem to do well in places that other flowers will not grow.

These red and yellow flowers definitely earn their tag of "wild," springing up here and there, regardless of how carefully I try not to spread the seed. But they are such joyful flowers that I cannot begrudge them their place.

Columbine flowers even add a bit of color as garnishes on our meals. They are red, so we figure they must possess some of the antioxidants tied to red pigments in many foods. "Eat the rainbow" for better health, they say. So we're eating the rainbow.

We're also taking in other types of "wild" nutrition now sprouting all over the place.

Nettles are the premier "wild" food on our plates at this time. I enclose the word "wild" in quotes because I actually cultivate them. Rather, I don't cultivate so much as just let them grow. I did transplant them to the three different areas they now inhabit. Other than that, they simply spread and grow without care, while I try to keep them from growing in the paths and non-nettle areas.

Nettles possess a great deal of nutrition. And yes, I do mean "stinging" nettles. Once cooked or dried, the nettles lose their sting an only provide great nutrition to your body. They are rich in nourishment, such as bone-building minerals, and frequent are used to return vitality to an ailing body.
They have a really rich flavor, which I find a bit overpowering on its own. So I mix my nettles with other foods.

We pour a bit of broth in the bottom of the skillet and stew the nettles well. We then either mix them with whatever vegetable-dense meal we've prepared, or top them with an herb-infused vinegar and oil dressing (which also serves to help your body better absorb the nutrients). Ground flax or nutritional yeast round out the flavor quite well.

Recipes for nettle soup often have you first cooking the nettles in something such as bacon fat, then blending with cream. That is not so much to my taste.
Nettles also can be brewed (either fresh or dried) into a nutritious tea. Some like the flavor of straight nettle tea. I prefer blending mine with other strongly flavored herbs, such as mint. Now that the solar powered food dehydrator has been put back together and set in place, I plan to start drying nettles for tea, or adding to food during the large portion of the year I cannot harvest nettles. And time is running out. One must get your nettles before they begin to flower, when little kidney-irritating crystals form in them.

When eating fresh, cut just the top four or six inches of the growing tip off the nettles. The stems and leaves below that point are tough and fibrous, which I don't think is a problem when brewing tea, or crumbling dried leaves into foods. Nettles also can be added to a bone broth brew for extra nutrition.

Other wild foods now on the menu are lambs quarters and dandelion greens. Yes the dandelions are blooming, which makes their already bitter leaves more bitter. But we add them in small amounts to our other wild greens, giving our meals a hint of bitterness and some of dandelion's goodness. I plan to look into a few other weedy foods, some of which were introduced to this continent and have gone wild, others which are native.

Hey, is it nettle time yet?