The gift of floxglove

 

The first foxglove to ever grace my gardens

Our California daughter emailed at 1:47 a.m. this morning while my husband and I slept. “Just wanted to let you know we arrived safely in Uganda late last night. It’s the middle of the night there, so I will wait to call. I enjoyed some of the finest passion fruit juice on the planet with breakfast this morning.”

            Kelly knows I’m fond of Uganda’s passion fruit juice from the month of December 2010 I spent with her new family of three along the Nile. Twelve years later, in celebration of his high school graduation, Jinja Town, Uganda, is their first destination while visiting their adopted son’s family.

            I opened another transcontinental email received at 4:30 a.m. “I am in Australia right now visiting family and making new friends as you can see by the photo I've attached.” My friend Marilyn B posed with a kangaroo.

            Our group of fellow art lovers named her Marilyn B for “Battiste” so we won’t confuse her with Marilyn Smith. We also know Marilyn B as Smiley because she always is.

            Pondering Kelly’s and Marilyn’s wanderlust, I rolled back my writing chair, gazed out my study window and thought, “So, what’s my breaking news?”

            On cue, the first foxglove to bloom in my gardens waved three feet from my nose. Every day this spring I’ve watched the tall, slim stem grow, the buds develop and pink petals open their black speckled upside-down blossoms.

Eleven months after my friend Connie placed four Styrofoam cups containing a foxglove seedling into my care, I witnessed a hummingbird flit from flower to flower.

Alas, winter claimed two of Connie’s gifts, and the other survivor languishes under the crabapple tree on the south end of the perennial island. The seedling grew tall and lush last summer and fall, so I’m perplexed. I’ll keep weeding and feeding her and see what happens.

These challenges make my one blooming Digitalis purpurea more precious, even though I sighted more robust clusters of her kind on the fabulous 22nd Annual Rochester Garden Walk two days ago.

I confess, my one foxglove paled compared to the thick stems and layers of blossoms full of themselves and growing in a mat of thick mulch. Yet, every gardener deserves their success and praise for their labor. Akin to raising daughters, it’s vain to compare one’s foxglove to another’s.

As this is my first and only foxglove, I will leave her be. I’ve plenty perennials to cut for my tables and hostess gifts.

For larkspur is blooming! Imagine her blue with the native yellow Lanceleaf Coreopsis from our west wildflower field where lavender once grew.

When Marilyn B and our companions arrive in July for another garden potluck, I hope there’s enough daylilies and Asian lilies left for bouquets. And the hibiscus should be beautiful when Kelly, our son-in-law, and grandson visit us in August.

Dear Reader, perhaps the shoot emerging from the blooming foxglove will flourish to welcome home our West Coast family.

Now, that’s breaking news.                 


Adoration of spring

 

My rhubarb in sunrise

On a clear morning, the first rays of sunrise alight the stems of my Ruby red rhubarb. For weeks now, I’ve admired the flirtatious florescence of twenty-one plants.

I had no clue how beautiful this sour food could be when I planted the crowns well over a decade ago. Yes, the word “crown” suits this queenly spring perennial. She may reign up to thirty years when well fed. I use chicken manure water for her roots and a natural foliar spray for her large, heart-shaped leaves.

You may think I’m overrating this old-fashioned favorite sometimes found on abandoned farms nearby lilac shrubs. Farmers chose these companions with purpose, which you’ll know by the conclusion of my praises for this hybrid of Rheum in the family Polygonaceae.

I have a long, steadfast relationship with Ruby. If you’d tasted my mother’s fresh strawberry-rhubarb pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on a warm, spring day, you’d also be smitten.

Now, considering I gather fresh, brown eggs every day to carry uphill to my kitchen, why wait for local strawberries? Why not add sliced rhubarb to my favored custard pie?

Chess Pie, a Southern tradition mixing one half cup butter, 2 cups sugar, one tablespoon all-purpose flour, 1 tablespoon cornmeal, five eggs, one cup milk, one teaspoon vanilla, and 2 tablespoons lemon juice, the baked result defies description. Two to three cups sliced rhubarb sparkle like jewels in the golden surface of toasted cornmeal.

Oh, I add one tablespoon of culinary lavender to the Rich Pie Crust recipe that accompanies the Chess Pie on page 247 of my lovingly abused Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook. The flavor of Lavandula angustifolia blends exquisitely with the crust, custard, and rhubarb.

This in mind, seriously consider to whom you serve this luscious dessert. Will your companion(s) mutually admire the pie’s beauty? Will they widen their eyes in surprise as they savor the scents of dairy, vegetable, grain, and herb?

Then adorn your table with a bouquet of lilacs. Later in spring when the peonies bloom, arrange them with poppies, roses, iris, and whatever spring flowers grace your gardens.

Go ahead, snip those compelling blooms that stop you, cause you to bow your face to their stamens. If you happen to grow Beauty Bushes, a few small blooming stems will infuse any room with her heavenly fragrance.

On a fine day, you may brew a pot of coffee or steep a teapot of Earl Gray to enjoy outdoors with your pie. Preferably in the company of a lilac and Beauty Bush.

Rhubarb Chess Pie is most delicious warm. Some pie lovers insist a dollop of real whipping cream necessary to complete the experience. Not I.

Yesterday I enjoyed the last piece of the Rhubarb Custard Pie I baked Monday morning for my Bible study group. The chilled custard tasted like rhubarb ice cream in a cone.

Dear Reader, the lowing sun beamed on my rhubarb stems this evening.

The close of spring’s admiration draws nigh.


Bone-tired

Top shelf of my bookcase inherited from my mother. Photo of Mom and my two younger daughters.

My young mother almost broke into a gallop when she walked. I heard her footfall throughout our small, ranch house, up and down the basement stairs and room to room. Seamlessly, she raced against time to complete one task, then another.

Until her seventies, seldom did I witness the prized moment when Mom put up her feet. I cannot remember a book in her hands while she raised my four sisters and me.

Was there such a thing as book clubs for mothers of Baby Boomers?

Rather, when Mom relaxed, she held a threaded needle in her right hand, and the hem of a skirt or dress in her left. She “never stopped until her head hit the pillow,” as she’d say.

Before Webster’s Dictionary endorsed the term, Sadie O’Brien’s accomplishments included the first “cottage industry” in the growing city of Warren. Her business began with sewing for women. Then baking and decorating wedding cakes. When our family doctor got wind of her culinary reputation, he hired Mom to cater his dinner parties.

In her fifties she found time and finances to build her dream home in Kentucky surrounded by flowering trees and gardens. However, sewing matching Christmas dresses for her five granddaughters became her favorite creative pastime. And a lure to gather her family around the expanded table for her famous light rolls hot out of the oven.

Meanwhile, Mom established a personal library. Her younger brothers built two large bookshelves for the literature she’d never had time to devour.

In the extending shadow of this remarkable history, the day arrived when Mom could no longer remember where she put her book-in-progress. Her footfall no longer bounced from room to room and up the stairs to the “dormitory” she designed and furnished for her granddaughters.

At last, under great distress and opposition, this strong, gifted woman submitted to her children’s care. After many medical tests, doctors confirmed our mother suffered from Alzheimer’s and Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “Make the most of the time you have left,” a doctor advised.

Upon one conversation with my mother, I asked how she was feeling.

She sighed. “Like I just hoed a cornfield.”

Perplexed, I replied, “You hoed cornfields?”

She blinked hard. “Why, yeah. Everybody who could hold a hoe had to help. I hated it. I’d rather make supper on the cook stove any day than hoe under the blazing sun. Nothing makes you bone-tired like hoeing a cornfield.”

At the time, I could only imagine, for I had yet to begin clearing and plowing land, and planting lavender fields. Later, I carried my harvest in baskets to the kitchen table for Mom to help bundle.

“Iris, what do you call this?”

“Lavender.”

“What do you do with it?”

“I infused it in our iced tea. You’re drinking it,” I’d say.

Dear Reader, my mother could no longer taste to understand lavender, an herb, flavored our tea.

And I soon learned nothing makes you bone-tired like hoeing a lavender field under a blazing sun.


What we carry home

 

Dennis uses a hot knife to melt wax off a frame of capped honey 

After several delays due to disagreeable weather, Dennis and I assembled my honey extractor yesterday afternoon. Well, let’s say I leaned heavily upon my neighbor’s mechanical experience with wingnuts, bolts, and washers.

Many moons had passed since I’d successfully found the right place for each part enclosed in the Ziploc baggie inside the stainless steel bin. Other than the spout that pours the golden honey into bottles, there’s nothing friendly about the machine. The name makes my teeth ache.

                 Since Dennis doesn’t own a honey extractor, months ago I’d offered to host a honey party in my pavilion. The more hands the merrier when it comes to handling sticky honey frames and cleaning up afterward. Before you know it, you’ve spent the day in congenial conversation.

“I don’t know why my colony collapsed last summer,” Dennis said. “They left some good honey.”

“And I don’t why my bees died this past winter,” I replied. “I couldn’t believe my eyes this spring when I counted thirteen frames of capped honey.”

“Then, let’s get you started,” he said.

After a refresher course with the electric, hot knife for melting the wax from the capped honey, I was on my own.

“Hey! Slow down with that knife,” Dennis said while he illustrated the proper method. “And don’t saw the honey. It’s not wood.”

                Within half an hour we had inserted six of my medium frames into the extractor and pressed the “on” button. The noise began as the machine and its stand shimmied, although we’d stabilized the foundation with a cinderblock and rocks.

 Dennis stopped the motor. “The weight of the frames must be unbalanced,” he said, lifted the lid, and rearranged the six frames. Repeatedly. Still, the extractor rattled the two chains that connected it to the stand.

Meanwhile, I leaned my weight upon the lid until we’d spun my thirteen frames.

“Now your honey,” I said.

We discovered his frames heavy with capped honey were too large for my extractor designed for medium frames.

“I thought this might be the case,” Dennis said.

 Well-advised to use the smaller sized frame due to the weight of a box of capped honey, I purchased the medium frame extractor years ago. “After all your help, I’m sorry you’re not taking home a bucket of honey.”

“That’s okay. Let’s do the medium box I brought.”

Simultaneously, we uncapped his honey and talked about our childhoods. “Where’d you grow up?” I asked Dennis.

“Dearborn. One of my buddies introduced me to Rhonda.”

I’ve known Rhonda for forty years. We met in the church we attended in Detroit where I also met Gina, one of Rhonda’s younger sisters. Gina and I were neighbors and often exchanged recipes. She left us her delicious apple cake as her legacy.

“Rhonda’s a gourmet cook,” Dennis said. “I’m the luckiest man in the world. She’ll have a delicious meal ready when I get home.”

“Do you two like asparagus?”

“We love it!”

Dear Reader, Dennis didn’t spin off much honey. Rather, he carried home several pounds of my homegrown asparagus.


It's a beautiful morning

 

Dwarf iris in my lower backyard garden

My sunrise exercise, I fill two water jugs in the basement washtub, pull on my red chicken boots, and open the sliding door-wall. The hens will be good and thirsty.

Stepping into a sunny, newborn day robust with birdsong, the first white dwarf iris to bloom nestled between boulders, greets me. She’s a luscious contrast before the green and flowering landscape—a gardener’s joyful surprise for accidentally planting her rhizomes in the right place.

            I smile and sing, “It’s a beautiful morning, ooh-ahh,” as I walk downhill to the henhouse.

That’s all I remember of the lyrics and determine to find them on the internet after breakfast. And who wrote and sang this soulful ode to daybreak? The tune vaguely relates to the troubled times of my late teens.

The Isa Browns huddle before the closed chute, squawking for liberation into their pen. “I’d be hollering too,” I say. “It’s a beautiful morning!”

            I sing while turning their straw, refreshing their grain bin and waterer in their roosting room. They’ve left me five eggs in the straw, one in the grain feeder—our first flock in fifteen years to manage such a strange thing.

The seventh hen, a retired Isa Brown, hasn’t produced for months. Yet, the matron’s a good influence on her housemates. And I prefer the number seven to six.

            They’ve tipped their waterer again and wet the straw. I head for the pavilion’s storage room for a low stool to stabilize the waterer and minimize my work.

A mother robin flies from a nest built years ago in a wreath hung on a pavilion post. I see two mouths wide open begging for bugs, and their undeveloped eyes. “It’s a beautiful morning, babies. Mama will be back soon.”

When I enter to the hens’ pen and refill their second waterer, those silly girls drink water I spilled on the ground while cleaning the container’s trough! Why bother? 

Later, after a fresh scrambled egg and asparagus meal, I discover Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati, wrote the song. Both members of the American rock band they dubbed The Rascals, they claim the inspiration for the lyrics came the morning after a successful performance in Honolulu, Hawaii, in June 1968.

Well, isn’t every morning beautiful morning in Hawaii?

According to Wikipedia, personal interviews, and Facebook, Cavliere and Brigati, my seniors, remain active musicians. Perhaps it’s taking in all that fresh air, and “children with robins and flowers, sunshine caresses each new waking hour,” that keeps them ticking.


 In conclusion, dear Reader, “I think I’ll go outside a while and just smile. It’s my chance to wake up and plan another brand new day. Either way, it’s a beautiful morning.”

“Each bird keeps singing his own song. So long, I’ve got to be on my way, now. I’ve got to cover ground.” There’s my first bleeding heart blooms to welcome.

And there’s Cuddles my cat, drinking from the birdbath again.          

Ahh...what a beautiful morning!

             

Cuddles our cat drinks from the birdbath in the lower garden