Woodland Violets

Holy Thursday

Think purple

Think wild violets

When we first moved to central Washington state, I was blessed one day to discover a now defunct garden center with a Japanese name, Pagoda. How I grew to love that place! It was laid out like an old-fashioned country garden with paths leading from the front gate — yes, it had an actual front gate made of unpainted wood turned grey with the years — past sheds to tall ornamental trees in the “back forty.” Each shed housed its own specialty, whether annuals or perennials. One day I found flats of violets! Whether gathered from woodlands in the Cascade foothills, hybridized, or sown from seed, I didn’t know and I didn’t ask. I simply bought a flat and took it home.

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I tucked my violet plants into a front dooryard bed. Through the decades they’ve multiplied to the point that I’ve been able to transplant them to various other beds, including the herb garden, and shared with neighbors and friends. I even sent bedding plants to my daughter in the Midwest and my son on the Pacific coast. That’s what old-fashioned gardeners have always done.

Our native American woodland violets are indigenous to temperate regions of the country, dying back in late summer heat only to surprise and delight us when they return the following spring, even after harsh winters in the Midwest. First to appear are their heart-shaped leaves in thick bunches spread through underground rhizomes. Purple blue flowers begin to uncurl on slender stems in late winter or early spring. They require little care once established in garden beds rich in organic matter, other than watering when the green leaves wilt in summer heat.

Once the leaves have dried out and turned pale brown, it’s time to cut them back to the ground. Violets do have a tendency toward invasiveness in lawns as well as garden beds. So much the better! Simply dig and divide some rhizomes if you want to propagate or share with your neighbors. I leave the ones that pop up in my lawn because, come early spring, they’re quite charming, scattered about for passerby to enjoy. The yard man will mow them down soon enough.

Violets sometimes perform well in clay pots or urns on the patio, or in wood window boxes. I have a clay planter on my back step, filled with rhizomes that sprout every spring, without fail. All I do is keep the planter watered. Violets are not, however, viable as houseplants other than, say, in an Easter bowl of mixed early spring bulbs such as little jonquils, narcissus, grape hyacinth, with perhaps a bit of trailing ivy for added leaf texture similar to the violet’s heart-shaped leaves.

True violets have been cultivated at least since 500 B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) for flavoring and medicinal purposes. The flowers were only incidental, the same as with herbs. Bedding violets are hybrids of Viola cornuta. Our wild violets descend from the wild “sweet violets” of Europe (Viola ordorata). 

Kissing cousins to violets and pansies are the dainty Johnny-jump-ups. They pop up seemingly everywhere, even in garden nursery pots, especially pansies. I think they’re cute and would look charming in a miniature vase on a dolls house table. The plant is a cross between Viola luea and Viola tricolor –purple/lavender/yellow — but much more proliferate and more heat tolerant. 

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All these various cousins with their Latin names are fascinating to study. However, since I am not a botanist, I’d rather just enjoy them in my garden. Did you know that they are among the rare edible flowers, along with squash blossoms. Add them to salads, decorate a frosted birthday cake, freeze in ice cubes for summer lemonade. 

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Hot Cross Buns

Hot cross buns, hot cross buns! One ha’penny, two ha’penny, hot cross buns! If you have no daughters, give them to your sons, One ha’penny, two ha’penny, hot cross buns!

~ Old English Nursery Rhyme

Every year, my maternal grandmother used to bake hot cross buns to break the all-day fast on Good Friday. Her yeast buns were studded with raisins, sometimes bits of candied fruit left over from Christmas cakes, and marked on top with a cross cut into the dough before baking.

Late on Good Friday afternoon, Mama would set her tea table with white linen cutwork and a small vase filled with early purple violets from her garden, a pot of hot tea, and a green Depression-era glass platter of the still warm buns. They’re as much a part of my Southern childhood as dyed eggs hidden in the garden on Easter morning. Only recently, however, did I learn the history behind the traditional hot cross bun.

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Like most Southern food traditions, the crossed bun as we know it originated in 14th century England. A certain Benedictine monk at Saint Alban’s Abbey in Hertfordshire developed a recipe for what came to be called Alban Buns, baked with a cross cut into the top, and distributed hot to the neighboring poor on Good Friday. He told them that the bread dough symbolized the bread of Holy Communion, the cross mark symbolized Jesus’s crucifixion on Calvary, and the cinnamon and nutmeg in the dough represented Jesus’s embalming oils and spices for burial.

Image may contain: foodCourtesy Zabouca Breads

Baking bread marked with a cross actually stems from pagan practice. Ancient Greeks and Romans baked festive wheat cakes with some sort of cross mark on the top to represent the rebirth of the world after winter. A cross cut into the top simply divided the bun into four quarters, representing the four phases of the moon in its monthly cycle, as well as the four seasons of the year. Besides, I suspect, the loaves were much easier to break into serving sections when already partially cut.

Roman conquerors of Britain obviously brought with them this custom of crossed cakes for their spring festivals, and the Saxons adopted it as part of their own pagan practices. Christians later adapted the crossed bun as a symbol of the Cross of Christ. Not until the reign of Elizabeth I of England in the late 16th century, however, was the cross bun linked specifically to Christian cultural celebrations with religious connotations on Good Friday and at burials.

By the 18th century, what we know as the traditional Good Friday Hot Cross Bun was available throughout England—but only on Good Friday—and all day long by street sellers crying, “One-a-penny, two-a-penny, hot-cross buns!” In the Life Of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell (published 1791), in fact, Boswell writes:

“On the 9th of April [1773], being Good Friday, I breakfast’d with him on tea and cross-buns … On April 18 [1783], (being Good-Friday) I found him at breakfast, in his usual manner upon that day, drinking tea without milk, and eating a cross bun to prevent faintness.”

Were they hot or cold, these buns? Boswell doesn’t say.

Presumably, English colonists brought along this Good Friday custom to the Virginia and New England settlements. Yet, I found no references in my research beyond the fact that American colonists had no wheat from which to make the breads they were accustomed to in Britain. Before the 18th century, at least, they had to content themselves with corn meal breads and muffins, still popular today.

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Modern American grocery stores and commercial bakeries turn out a mass-produced version of hot cross buns with artificial flavoring, shaped with a rounded top crust shiny with brushed egg white, decorated with a cross of white icing—not at all appropriate to the solemnity of Good Friday, in my mind. And they taste rather dry after sitting on the shelves from February through Easter. I much prefer to bake my own, following my grandmother’s example

RECIPES 

Traditional Hot Cross Buns

Makes 30 buns

2 cups scalded milk

1 cup unsalted butter

1 cup sugar

2 cakes or envelopes of yeast dissolved in 1/3 cup warm water

2 large eggs

8 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups currents or golden raisins

1/2 cup candied fruits, chopped and dusted lighted with flour

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon or nutmeg

 

Preheat oven to 375 F. Butter cookie sheets.

Pour the scalded milk over the butter and sugar. Stir to dissolve the butter and sugar. Let cool.

Add the dissolved yeast and the eggs. Blend well.

Add the flour and salt gradually and blend.

Add the floured fruits and the spice(s) to the dough and knead in thoroughly.

Place in a buttered bowl, cover, and let rise until doubled in a warm place.

Shape dough into 30 balls and place on buttered cookie sheets.

Cover and let rise for 30 minutes.

Carefully press a knife into each ball to shape a cross.

Let rest for a bit.

Bake in a preheated 375F oven for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to 350F and continue baking about 10-15 minutes longer, until buns are lightly browned and done. (Balls will flatten into buns with baking.) Let cool on wire racks.

 

Irish Soda Buns

Makes 10 buns

1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour

2/3 cups whole wheat flour

1/4 cup sugar

1 1/4 baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons unsalted softened butter cut into small pieces

1/2 cup golden raisins

1 teaspoon caraway seeds

3/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons buttermilk

 

Preheat oven to 375 F.

In a large bowl, whisk flours, sugar, baking soda, salt.

Cut in butter pieces until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.

Stir in raisins and caraway seeds.

Pour buttermilk over the top and stir with a fork until mixture holds together, adding more buttermilk as necessary.

Transfer dough to floured surface and knead about 20 times until smooth.

Shape into 10 balls and place into baking pan.

Cut a cross into top of each ball.

Bake 25 minutes until golden brown. Let cool on wire rack.

 

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Why Is Palm Sunday Called Palm Sunday?

 Rejoice greatly, O Daughter Zion! Shout, O Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 

~ Zechariah 9:9

The next day the great crowd that had come for the [Passover] heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the king of Israel!” 

~ John 12:13

In ancient times, the Jews waved palm branches to welcome their king in victory and peace while reciting Psalm 118, especially the cry “Hosanna!” followed by verses 26-26, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

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Palm branches were a symbol of Jewish nationalism, an expression of the people’s desire for political freedom. Thus, the palm, or lulavim, became a symbol of freedom placed on Jewish coins from the time of King David until the Babylonian Exile. When the Temple was rebuilt, artisans carved palms and open-faced flowers with cherubim, and over-laid the carvings with gold.

Five hundred years later when Jesus entered Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, people expected an earthly king  in an impending military victory over the Romans. They demonstrated their surrender to His authority by taking off their cloaks and laying them on the ground before Him.  Their cry of “Hosanna” meant, “Please save us! Give us freedom!” It became a slogan of the ultra-nationalistic Zealots, but they completely misinterpreted Jesus’s true heavenly kingship.

The ancients regarded this particular palm as particularly characteristic of Palestine because of its abundance. According to my Google searches, ancient Greeks and Romans called the whole land of Palestine “ the land of palms,” or Phoenicia. The finest specimens grew at Jericho (Deuteronomy 34:3) and along the banks of the Jordan. Sadly, today palm trees have become quite rare in the Levant.

The palm tree itself includes many botanical species, but only the date palm — Phoenix dactylifer of Linnaeus — is pertinent to the biblical Palm Sunday event. It is a slender tree reaching forty to fifty feet, sometimes more. Its branches sprout near the top and appear almost feathery, made of equally-spaced green fronds along opposite sides of an axis extending six to twelve feet bending and swaying in the breeze.

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Date palms today grow in the Middle East as well as Morocco, Pakistan, and India — as well as in California to where Spanish missionaries brought them in the 18th and early 19th centuries. These varieties reach upward of seventy-five feet! Dates are the dark, sweet fruit that many use in desserts from holiday fruitcakes to tea breads, often with nuts and raisins. Sephardic recipes for the Passover charoset, for example, is based on dates chopped with pine nuts, combined with a sweet wine into a paste, to symbolize the mortar that Hebrew slaves in Egypt prepared for building the pyramids.

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This coming Sunday, the 26th of March, is Palm Sunday. It opens Holy Week, the most solemn liturgical season of the church year. Christians worldwide will process into their churches and cathedrals while waving long green and white palm fronds and singing “Hosanna!” They will recall the first such procession in honor of the Messiah soon to suffer His death, only to rise again on the third day in glorious triumph. And I, too, will be one among them.

 

 The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree . . . 

They will still bear fruit in their old age; they will stay fresh and green. 

~ Psalm 92:12, 14

 

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Grape Hyacinths

Yesterday I spotted my first tiny muscari, the common purple grape hyacinth I had planted decades ago as an edging along my front entrance garden bed. It’s a bit early, but I don’t mind, especially as the crocuses begin to fade and the yellow tulips have yet to send up stalks from their nests of still curled leaves.

The grape hyacinth resembles clusters of tiny grapes, usually in shades of blue or purple, sometimes white, depending upon their particular variety. Its genus name Muscari derives from the Greek word for musk, a perfume fixative used for its persistently heavy scent.

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As I play with this Greek derivative, I discover Muscadine (c. 1785), a Southern grape with small clusters that smell like musk. Muscadet (c. 1899) is a dry white wine from France’s Loire Valley. Muscat (c. 1548) is any of several cultivated grapes used for making wines and raisins. Muscat Canelli, in fact, is one of my favorite white wines that’s become scarce in grocery stores.  And Muscatel, from Old French muscadel and Middle English muskadell, is both a sweet fortified wine and a variety of raisin. 

Enough word play and on to the little grape-like bulb of early spring. Although there are countless varieties of the grape hyacinth, I believe mine is the Muscari armeniacum, among the more common found in home gardens. They tend to spread and, if allowed free reign, will naturalize in the lawn. I usually dig up those and transplant back along the edging. Once the tulips brighten the garden bed, the yellows and blues create a stunning vista from the street view. Walkers often stop to admire the scene. 

But the most stunning scene I once viewed was a river of purple grape hyacinths weaving between masses of red tulips in a spring woodland. Goes to show that Mother Nature mixes her hues despite my mother’s advice never to wear red with purple!

Cultivation
As with most spring blooming bulbs, plant grape hyacinths in autumn, four inches apart and three inches deep where the soil drains well.
After blooming has finished for the season leave the foliage in place. Late in the spring the leaves will yellow and die back as the plant slips into dormancy. The foliage may be removed at this point. Water as needed during active growth periods.
If the planting area becomes overcrowded, it’s easy to propagate simply by digging them up and replanting in late summer when the plants are dormant.
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Cultivating Snowdrops

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Galanthus nivalis (poculiformis from an original watercolour by Nina Krauzewicz

 

According to the Royal Horticultural Society, any garden can accommodate snowdrops. You may source bulbs from a nursery or garden center where they are available, or you may order them online (for starters, try http://www.americanmeadows.com).

A small cultivar selection includes:

  • Galanthus plicatus AGM — an easy species to grow; free-flowering; reaches a height of between 10 and 18cm (4-7in)
  • Galanthus nivalis — the so-called common snowdrop
  • Galanthus monostictus AGM — an elegant variety of Turkish origin with blue-grey (glaucous) leaves and reaches a height of between 9 and 18cm (3½-7in)
  • Galanthus “Atkinsii” AGM – a popular but choice form, with delightful elongated flowers; reaches a height of 21cm (8¼in)

If you order online, plant immediately into your garden bed as these bulbs are quite prone to drying out.

If you buy already potted plants from a garden center, wait until the foliage is just dying back, while the leaves are still green, called “in the green.”

In either case, plant snowdrops in a partly-shaded position in a moist, but well-drained soil incorporated with winter leaf mould mulch or garden compost. It is vital that the soil not dry out in summer.

If you already have snowdrops in an older garden, you may lift and divide just after blooming while they’re still in the green in late spring, as the foliage begins to turn yellow. Split the clumps into smaller pieces with as little root disturbance as possible, then replant at the same depth as they were in the garden bed. You may also plant the snowdrops individually to extend next year’s blooming area. Water well, then repeat daily to keep relatively damp as squirrels like to dig up dry bulbs and nibble them for lunch.

Another method of propagating snowdrops is called twin scaling, a more complex method involving taking pairs of the scales (like layers of an onion) that make up the bulb and placing them in a damp environment to encourage each set of scales to make new bulbs. Here’s how:

  1. Use surgical gloves or wash hands thoroughly and use a sterilized cutting board and tools.
  2. Remove outer brown scales (husk) and dead tissue and keep the basal plate intact. Slice off the nose of the bulb with a clean sharp knife.
  3. With the bulb upside down, cut it vertically into half, then quarters. Each section must have a piece of the basal plate attached.
  4. Peel back pairs of scales from each piece, cutting them free at the base with a scalpel, again with a piece of basal plate attached.
  5. Place in a plastic bag with a 50-50 mix of slightly damp peat-substitute and perlite.
  6. Shake the bag and fill with air before sealing and labelling.
  7. Place in a warm (21°C/70°F), dark place for 12 weeks.
  8. When bulblets appear at the base of the scales, pot them up individually, covered with their own depth of compost.
  9. If the scales have gone soft, remove them from the bulblets before potting them. If the scales are still firm, or have roots coming from their base, leave them attached to the bulblets.

This method of propagating bulbs probably isn’t for the novice gardener, but I think it would be worth a try. Experiment the first year with just a handful to see how they turn out the following spring.

When planting bulbs for naturalizing under deciduous trees or in the lawn, scatter them randomly over your chosen area and plant them where they fall. Dig planting holes with a trowel or, in grassed areas, use a bulb planter.

Crocus naturalised in grass

 

 

Source: The Royal Horticultural Society, a UK charity established to share the best in gardening and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place to enrich everyone’s life through gardens.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Snowdrops

Robed in white comes Snowflake, braving wintry winds and ice, pearly “Maid of February” whom the glistening frosts entice. Gladly welcome Snowflake Fairy, on your terrace give her room. She alone in February braves the cold to shed her bloom.  ~ Elizabeth Gordon

I miss the dainty English snowdrops of my Southern childhood, the first harbinger of spring, usually in late February. Mother grew these bulbs under her kitchen window on the east side of our house. Shy little things, they were. They bowed their heads to reveal a dot of green on each white petal. At least, that’s  how I remember them. Not all snowdrops are alike.

The genus snowdrop comprises about 20 species in the amaryllis family of spring bulbs. The plants have two linear leaves and a single small drooping bell-shaped flower with six petals each. Native to the deciduous woodlands of Europe, they often are naturalized as masses or cultivated in gardens as colonies under spring-flowering shrubbery. I think Mother’s plants may have descended from bulbs brought over by an English great-grandmother named Charlotte, and she sited them among the gardenias.

The common snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) sometimes is confused with the snowflake (Leucojum) which is related but much larger and blooms later. According to my Google search, the etymological meaning of the snowdrop’s name comes from the combination of two Greek and Latin words. Galanthus, from the ancient Greek, means “milk white flower” while the Latin word nivalis means “resembling snow.” Its name also could indicate simply that the white flowers emerge in snow in England and Ireland.

Ancient legends surround snowdrops. One such legend has it that God took pity on Eve, weeping in the wilderness after the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. He sent an angel to console Eve. The angel scattered a handful of snowflakes which, when they made contact with the barren ground, sprang up as dainty white blossoms. Eve smiled and took heart at the sight of this new promise of hope.

Snowdrops do symbolize hope and a new beginning since they emerge in winter-weary gardens while spring seems far distant. Seeing them helps us overcome our own despondency, if we are prone to “winter blues” as I am, and instill a new attitude of courage just as brilliant blue and gold crocuses do here in my northwest climate. Every time I open my front door, or sit outside on the front porch bench in rare sunshine, I feel renewed.

Hope springs eternal in the human breast. Man never is, but always to be blest. ~ Alexander Pope

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Galanthus nivalis (poculiformis from an original watercolour by Nina Krauzewicz

 

NEXT: Notes on planting and cultivating snowdrops, from the Royal Horticultural  Society

 

 

What Happens When Whipped Cream Crystalizes?

This time last  year we remained smothered in mounds of snow, whipped cream, its frozen surfaces sparkling like tiny diamonds in sunlight. It crunched under my granny boots when I stepped outside. During the day,  its edges shrank, leaving puddles that froze and crystalized in moonlight. This year’s winter of browns and greys aren’t any better.

My thought processes flounder in a mush that feels like last year’s whipped cream instead of a collection of active brain cells. I either muddle through the day or succumb to the mush. This is a good time NOT to make any life-changing decisions. It’s hard enough just to decide what to plan for supper. Maybe a scrambled egg?  Only when the sun emerges again from snow clouds does my brain wake up and my thoughts crystalize and regain clarity.

Some folks call this state the “winter blues” but its worse than that. It’s SAD, acronym for Seasonal Affective Disorder. Its symptoms include feelings of anxiety and/or depression during most days, feeling enervated and sluggish (especially in my arms and legs), experiencing difficulty sleeping through the night or oversleeping in the mornings, withdrawing from society. I lose interest in activities I usually enjoy, anything that requires mental effort–except escaping into books or binge watching Netflix movies, not to mention binging on coffee liqueurs and chocolate chip cookies.

What actually causes these disruptions to a normal lifestyle during the winter months? According to studies at the Mayo Clinic, three levels are at play, all based on lack of sufficient sunlight:

  • Biological clock (circadian rhythm). The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may cause winter-onset SAD. This decrease in sunlight may disrupt your body’s internal clock and lead to feelings of depression.
  • Serotonin levels. A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, might play a role in SAD. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin that may trigger depression.
  • Melatonin levels. The change in season can disrupt the balance of the body’s level of melatonin, which play a role in sleep patterns and mood.*

Moreover, the Mayo report continues, SAD appears to be more common among people who live far north or south of the equator. This factor is due to decreased sunlight during the winter and longer days during the summer months, as novelist Kristen Hannah illustrated graphically in her latest book, The Great Alone, set in Alaska. That alone explains why I never suffered any of these symptoms in my native South but only after moving to the Pacific Northwest some forty years ago.

Short of waiting it out until summer returns with its brighter and longer days, what am I to do to alleviate these symptoms? After all, I can’t simply burrow like a black bear in the Alaskan wilds. As a treatment for SAD, special lamps have been developed for broad-band light therapy. The individual, however, must sit in front of the light box for thirty to sixty minutes each day. Friends with varying degrees of SAD assure me this treatment really works. I’m not so sure. I’d have to wear sunglasses to protect sensitive eyes, although I do enjoy sitting in my sunny front window–when the sun actually is shining, that is. The curtain sheers shield the ultraviolet rays to an extent.

Music therapy, on the other hand, has proven most beneficial for me. I keep my radio tuned to NPR, the classical music station. I do ballet exercises. I even mop the kitchen floor to a CD of Cuban jazz from the Buena Vista Club, a revival of 1950s Cuban jazz. And at night I bury myself in a good book or binge watch online movies.

So, what does happen when whipped cream crystalizes? It doesn’t. It just hardens, only to make a mess when it eventually thaws. That was just a metaphor.

 

* Copyright 1998-2018 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). All rights reserved. Found on Google Search.