Monday, August 30, 2010

Four commelinids

The four plants shown here are related to the familiar tradescantias.

Above is Commelina communis, the Asiatic day flower, which is widespread in ruderal situations throughout eastern North America. Its flowers are open early in the day and soon (within a few hours on hot days) shrivel. Their blue color is as beautiful as that of any blue flower, and in this case “any” includes any gentian I've seen, the Chilean blue crocus and Heavenly Blue morning glory.

Pollia japonica, above,  looks like nothing else in the garden. Without knowing what it is, you would probably have a hard time placing it. In some ways it looks like a cross between a knotweed and a bamboo. By this time of year the plants have reached four or five feet in height and are blooming. The plants have wonderful poise. The individual flowers are not impressive, but the inflorescence is nevertheless interesting and catches the light beautifully. The foliage is unusually clean and handsome; the plant has no serious pests - or the pests have not yet developed a taste for it. It moves around freely in this garden by both stolons and seeds, and that makes me wonder if in the future it might become a pest. In a sense it bears the mark of the pest: it has small round blue fruits like those of the mile-a-minute vine or those of Ampelopsis brevipedunculata.
Tinantia pringlei, above, has been in this garden for only a few years, but it is making a very good impression. Is it an annual or a perennial under our conditions? It seems to be a perennial, although self-sown seedlings appear here and there. Each plant forms a mound about eighteen inches in diameter, and the lavender blue flowers are borne freely enough to make a good effect. At least one related species is known to be invasive and difficult to control, but so far this one seems well behaved. Bob Faden introduced this Mexican plant to our group.

Tinantia leiocalyx, above,  is new this year for me. It’s very attractive in bud – when the flower actually opens the effect is hardly better. To me, the bud in the middle in the lower of the two images immediately above looks like a reddish-purple coffee bean. This is another Mexican species,  and Bob Faden, who introduced it to our circle, says it is an annual under our conditions. The one shown here is in a pot: will it get bigger in the ground? This one is worth growing for its foliage, too.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A good match

Earlier this year one of the local big box stores put out some handsome 6' tall Dipladenia. The price was too steep for me ($50), but the handsome plants caught my eye every time I visited that store. As time passed it became obvious that people were not buying them. Weeks passed, and the plants began to twine into the chain fence against which they leaned. Eventually they were put on sale for $20 each, and they began to find new homes quickly. I bought one pink and one red. It took me the better part of an hour to untangle the stems from the chain link fence, but that bit of bother paid off handsomely in preserving the developing flower buds.

I planted them in big tubs on the deck. The red one has a corner to itself. The pink one was planted in front of the crepe myrtle. I took a chance in doing this: the color of the crepe myrtle does not blend with many other flowers. But when the crepe myrtle came into bloom, the two combined beautifully,.

In the image above you don't see many flowers on the Dipladenia. That is because another member of the household has taken to picking bunches of flowers dialy. And when the flower is picked with a stem, it takes not only the blooming flower but all of the buds developing on that stem.

When I bought these plants a little voice told me that I probably would regret it. The problem is that I have no idea what to do with them during the winter. They are already really too big to bring into the house. Will cuttings root? It will be heartbreaking to leave them out to freeze.

But for now let's enjoy them.

Coleus on the deck

One simple solution to the problem of keeping color going in the mid-summer garden  is to rely on colorful foliage. It's hard to beat coleus for this purpose, and so many distinctive and striking cultivars are now available that it's tempting to attempt a coleus garden. In the old days they were sometimes known as flame nettles and were as likely to be seen in the house during the winter gathering dust as they were to be seen in the shady summer garden. It took gardeners a while to realize that to get the best from these plants they should get at least a few hours of sun.

Here they are grown in a medium made up mostly of leaf grow, the local soil and wood chips. If you want really big plants, select varieties which are known to put on size. Many of the traditional seed grown types top out at about a foot no matter how generously you treat them. Some of the clonally propagated sorts easily go up to three feet. And the 'Kong' series is a must if you like huge foliage.

Generations of gardeners knew these plants as coleus. They are currently placed in the genus Solenostemon.

This year there are about a half dozen big pots of them grouped on the deck. They are at their best in late summer, and it is certainly easier to enjoy them  after the weather has cooled down a bit. 

The dog days of August

There is a group of funguses called stink-horns which naughty mycologists have had some fun with: one genus is called Phallus, and other genera have vernacular names which combine the name of some mammal with whatever vulgar name is current in the community in question for the male reproductive parts. These vernacular names are ancient and predate modern botanical nomenclature. I can't help but wonder what the doctrine of signatures had to say about the uses of these funguses.

The one shown above is Mutinus caninus, named as you can guess from the name for the dog. And it fruits during the dog days. Their appearance is disgusting enough, but just in case, be warned: they are poisonous.

Mushroom season, part 1

Plenty of rain during the middle of August has brought up plenty of mushrooms. There is a place which Biscuit and I pass during our walks which was slathered with wood chips last summer. I've kept an eye on it since then waiting to see what might sprout up.

In the pictures above you see Leucoagaricus americanus in profusion. This species is edible, but the quality varies. I took one home and sauteed it in butter; it releases a savory woodsy-mushroomy aroma while cooking. But one bite was all it took for me to spit it out. It had the same disagreeable taste that I have sometimes noticed in the stems of shiitake mushrooms from the grocery store.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Rhubarb in August?

Well, there it was in the grocery store, rhubarb in August! And it was good quality rhubarb, thick, fresh and plump. I have a weakness for rhubarb, so a nice fat bundle of it came home with me.

And then it sat in the refrigerator for two days. It was too hot to think about cooking. I bought that rhubarb with the idea of making a rhubarb pie. But after the second day, and with no motivation to make a pie or for that matter to turn on the oven for any reason, I began to worry about the rhubarb going bad.

So I took the easy, time-honored way out: I simply chopped the rhubarb with some sugar and stewed it. The result can be seen above, spread out on some fresh biscuits. What I did not use was packed away in zip-lock bags for storage in the freezer. The prospect of the winter ahead suddenly seems a bit less daunting.

Zabaglione and white peaches

While visiting in western Virginia last weekend, Wayne, his mom and I had lunch at a local pizza place. The food, both in quality and in variety, was just what you would expect in such a place – and it was just what I was in the mood for. After sharing a pizza and an eggplant Parmesan sub, I took a look at the desert menu. Tiramisu was listed, but the rest of the party did not seem interested. And then I spotted something on the menu which really surprised me: zabaglione. I have a thing for zabaglione, and immediately I began to imagine the possibility of zabaglione dripping languidly over a ripe white peach. But the pizza place version came with strawberries, and at that the tiramisu began to sound better. So we split the tiramisu: one part for Wayne’s mom, one part for Wayne and ten parts for Jim.

Later that day we visited a local grocery store and guess what was there: local Virginia peaches. There was one bin of yellow peaches and one bin of white peaches. I bought a couple of pounds of each. I couldn’t wait to get home and whip up a pot of zabaglione.

There are no doubt plenty of sensible people who would say that a perfectly ripe peach needs no further adornment: it can be made different but it cannot be made better. These peaches turned out to be very good indeed: so juicy that as I peeled them I made a real mess with the freely flowing juices.

In the photo above you see the zabaglione with one of the white peaches. I suppose if I were a professional photographer doing a food magazine cover I would have at best halved the peach and shown just a bit of the zabaglione slinking down the side of the peach. But from the standpoint of the person about to eat this, what I did was better. The sliced peaches were carefully arrayed around the edge of the bowl leaving a deep well in the center which was filled with the zabaglione. A sprig of mint provided a nice flavor contrast. Yummy…

And what is zabaglione? It’s a very simple custard sauce made with nothing more than egg yolks, sugar and a bit of spirits for flavoring. Marsala is traditional and that’s what I used on the first trial; on the second, I added some orange zest and a bit of vanilla. Both were great. Mix the ingredients until the eggs begin to thicken a bit and get pale, then very carefully warm the mixture over the steam from a double boiler whipping it the whole time. Watch it carefully; in a few minutes it will begin to thicken even more. Once it reaches the desired thickness, it’s ready to go.

Custard sauces are one of those old-fashioned things which seem to have disappeared from contemporary American cooking. It’s hard to see why since they are easily prepared, use familiar ingredients and are all but universally appreciated. The word “custard” might be the problem: custards are notorious for curdling, collapsing and so on. These things happen to people who talk on the phone or watch the television while cooking. These are the people who regard the preparation of Hollandaise sauce as requiring unattainably advanced culinary techniques. These are the people who shop in the “prepared food” aisles of the grocery stores.

Whew! Writing all of that was a lot of work; I need a simple reward to cheer me up – something with fresh ripe peaches and a nice custard sauce…

The song of the wood thrush

What happened to July? It's August already! Early July was very busy for me; and the weather kept me out of the garden for the most part. Wow what punishing weather we've had this year. And most of August is still ahead of us. Already I can sense the shortening days, and the instinct to hoard food for the winter ahead is making itself felt.

We are very lucky in that the wood thrush is one of the common local birds. For the last several years I've been trying to keep track of when the last wood thrush song is heard. In most recent years I've heard the last wood thrush in late July: one day they are there, the next the song (and maybe the bird itself) is gone for the year.

Wayne called me this morning to tell me that he heard a wood thrush this morning. So now for the first time I have an August date for the song of the wood thrush.