Wednesday, August 20, 2008


What would summer be without tomatoes, corn, peaches - and crabs, plenty of salty, succulent Chesapeake Bay blue crabs. My niece and her hubby live near the water and love to crab. And the rest of us love to eat crabs: what a team! Mema, the matriarch of our family, celebrates her birthday in early July (this year, the 88th), and for the last couple of years we've enjoyed a big crab feast to mark the event. This year it was about a month late, but it was worth the wait.

My niece Ashley and her hubby Drew got up at about 4 A.M., drove out to the bay, crossed the bay and set up off Kent Island. They use crab pots, and they're good at it. Half a hundred crabs later they're back in the car and on the way home. Sometime in the early afternoon the unmistakable aroma of steamed crabs begins to permeate their yard. Soon the picnic table is covered with coarse brown paper, the hammers, knives and napkins are out, the drinks appear (soon to disappear and be replaced!) and the expectant crowd surrounds the table. Then Drew, master crab cooker, opens the pot and begins to arrange the crabs on the table. There were a lot of them this year, lots of huge Jimmys heavy with yummy crab meat.

And then begins the merry clatter of a summer afternoon of crab picking, something we Marylanders know how to get into. Last summer my friend Hilda in Virginia taught me to pick crabs Northern Neck style, and I tried to demonstrate - but the crabs were so good that the lesson quickly disappeared into my mouth.
In the top picture, you see Ashley and her Mema; in the next one, left to right, Ashley, Mema and Drew; the next picture shows some of the crabs; then there are photos of remains after five stuffed Marylanders have kicked back and settled into a postprandial near coma. Boy they were good! In the last picture, nine-month old Ashton Frederick perks up as if to say "what smells so good?"

Friday, August 15, 2008

Northern Ring-neck Snake

One of the advantages of gardening green and living next to a park is that all sorts of interesting little creatures move into the garden and take up residence. It’s mid-August now, and that means it’s baby ring neck snake time. For years I’ve been finding these in the basement at this time of year. When I find them they are often tangled up in a spider web. Wayne, who lives about a mile south of me and on the same side of the creek around which the park is centered, finds them in his bedroom and living room tangled up in the fibers of the carpet. He rescued the one shown above from the carpet: after taking the image above he released the snake.

The ring neck snake here is the northern ring-neck snake, Diadophis punctatus edwardsi. The generic name is an allusion to the bright golden ring around the neck (think diadem), and the specific epithet is a reference to the spots on the abdomen in some other subspecies but not on the northern subspecies.

These small snakes are probably a lot more common than we realize, but they are very secretive. If you are in likely habitat, turn over any flat objects lying on the ground: these snakes are often found in such situations. They are relatively slow moving (at least when first uncovered) and harmless to humans. They might however excrete a malodorous fluid if molested.

Thursday, August 14, 2008


I don’t remember when I first became aware of garden nasturtiums. They were among the familiar flowers which grew in the neighborhood gardens of my childhood, and they might in fact have been among the plants my mother planted each year around our Silver Spring home. And I think I remember the thick clusters of black aphids which cluster under the leaves as well as I remember the flowers, their fragrance or their taste.

Nasturtiums have personality: they are distinctive, and you’re unlikely to confuse them with anything else. The seeds are so big and easily grown that generations of writers have recommended them for children’s gardens. The seeds look like small chick peas. They bloom in familiar colors; I think of their color range as the color range of wall flowers – reds, yellows and those very dark red-browns and tans. They manage to be easily grown and familiar, and yet at the same time they retain a mysterious, sophisticated quality.

The ones shown here are from a packet of seed labeled “Jewel Mix” as distributed by W. Atlee Burpee & Co. Garden nasturtiums, which are by nature perennials, are available in climbing forms, semi-climbing forms and forms which grow as compact clumps. The flowers are single or semi-double in the usual seed raised forms, but fully double forms propagated from cuttings are sometimes available. The flowers come with and without spurs; the ones without spurs are apt to face upright. My favorites are the ones in dark, muted colors, single, with spurs and fragrant.

In the very old days, garden nasturtiums were sometimes called “Indian cress”. The peppery fragrance causes some people to scrunch up their nose when they smell them, and that in effect is what the Latin term nasturtium means. Botanically, cress, as in watercress, is a crucifer, Nasturtium officinale. On the other hand, our garden nasturtiums are botanically Tropaeolum majus. In old books the names T. minus and T. lobbianum (or T. peltophorum) appear: these are species sometimes cited in the ancestry of the garden nasturtium. Tropaeolum are generally placed in their own family Tropaeolaceae which is related to geraniums of the Geraniaceae. If you look closely at one of the images you can make out foliage of Oxalis lasiandra: the Oxalidaceae are also closely related to these plants.

Our garden nasturtiums are “cress” only in the culinary sense: all parts of the plants appear to be edible and palatable and do have a peppery quality which is a refreshing addition to salads or chopped into cream cheese for sandwiches. Even the seeds (sometimes pickled as a caper substitute) are edible.
The flowers in the images above were photographed early in the morning; the orange ones still show the crinkled petals which have not yet full expanded. These remind me of opening poppy flowers.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Sedum pachyclados

I found this little plant, Sedum pachyclados, in a nursery in western Virginia earlier this year. What is there about sedums which makes them so collectible? I find it hard to resist them. The small ones in particular catch my eye. At the meetings of our local rock garden group they often appear in the plant exchanges – and rarely have either names or the compact growth which characterizes commercially grown plants. Although there are a few which are properly shade plants, in general they are for full sun and show their best habit when grown right out in the open with nothing between them and the sun. Move the ones adapted to full sun into the shade and the growth form changes: the compact mass you plant soon becomes a rangy tangle of brittle stems.

One of these days I hope to have a long narrow border planted with all of these small miscellaneous plants I’ve accumulated over the years. Not just sedums but sempervivums, small bulbs tolerant of summer wet, Delospermum and company, Nierembergia rivularis, small erodiums, tiny alliums and hundreds of others. The weeding will probably be a nightmare.

The Jaguar Flower

This startling flower, Tigridia pavonia, has been known in the English-speaking world since at least the sixteenth century: there is a crude drawing of it in the Elizabethan edition of Gerard’s Herball. I would not be surprised to learn that Tigridia had been introduced to Europe long before that by the Spanish, but I can’t cite a source for an actual date of introduction.

In the English-speaking world the name Tigridia has traditionally been interpreted as having reference to tigers – and more than one merry commentator has noted that tigers have stripes, not the spots seen in these flowers. I think a more sensible interpretation takes into consideration the likelihood that the first descriptions in a European language were in Spanish, and in Spanish the jaguar is called El Tigre. And jaguars are spotted. That explains my choice of title for this post.


Our little dog Biscuit provided some unexpected merriment yesterday. Wayne and I were examining a plant of patchouli, Pogostemon cablin: this is the plant which provides the scent many people associate with the smell of hippies. It’s a scent which evokes mixed reactions: Mrs. Wilder wrote "Valuable India shawls used to be distinguished by their odour [sic] of Patchouli and it is one of the commonest perfumes found in the bazaars, a most peculiar fragrance, vary disagreeable to some persons." Years ago I asked an Indian co-worker about patchouli: before I could finish my inquiry, I was being told that only “they” (i.e. not her “we”) use it; and “they” use it because “they” don’t bathe. One of these days I’ll ask one of “them” for their side of the story.

Wayne and I decided to make Biscuit a hippie dog, so I rubbed her with a patchouli leaf. I then showed her the leaf, and she took a keen interest in it. She tried to eat it in fact. And she became very frisky and playful. “Catnip for dogs” Wayne speculated.

I had never read anything about patchouli being toxic to humans or dogs, but I wasn’t about to let Biscuit eat it without knowing for sure about its effect on dogs. A Google search was in order: it didn’t take long to discover that there are plenty of canine grooming products out there which contain patchouli. I even ran across a blog posting asserting that dogs love patchouli. Who would have known?
So I rubbed some patchouli scent on one of her balls; off she went, suddenly energized and full of it.

Now begins the wait to see if she can find the plant on her own and crop it.