Making merry with Osage oranges

Merry Osage orange snowmen
The fruit resembles a green, softball-sized brain.

But Lewis Meriwether didn’t know that in April 1804 when he found  “some slips of the Osages Plums and Apples“ in St. Louis. The explorer-botanist shipped them to Thomas Jefferson who shared the plants with Bernard McMahon in Philadelphia.

McMahon, “America’s pioneer nurseryman,” planted seven of Lewis’ cuttings in front of his store on Fourth Street, adjoining the churchyard of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.

More than 200 years later, the trees still bear their sticky, milky, sappy orbs—a bit of history I’d love to behold some autumn day thanks to Founding Gardeners by Andrea Wulf.

Following the steps of French explorers and traders, Lewis learned the Osage Indian and other tribes used the tree’s wood for bow making. Not too far into the future from Lewis and Clark’s westward expedition, pioneers planted Osage seedlings to provide thorny boundaries and windbreaks on America’s prairies.

Some southwest farmers planted all manner of fruit-bearing shrubs between the Osage trees for a bird habitat within the impenetrable hedge.

This clever idea appeals to me like the little fen where our hens like to hang out. My husband calls it “the back forty” of our three and a half acres.

Long before we moved north of 32 Mile Road, this Macula pomifera barrier fell out of fashion with the advent of barbed wire and the tractor. Some landowners used the rot-resistant timber from the Osage tree for their fence posts that outlived the barbed wire.

I knew nothing of the bow-making tree when l first drove my daughters east on 32 Mile to Romeo schools thirty-one years ago. Come fall, I spied something green smashed on the road that had fallen from branches above the Cusick Lake curve.

Now, it’s a dangerous, blind bend, so I dared not stop my car to satisfy my curiosity about botanical road kill.

Eighteen years later, my handyman Andy showed up one day with two buckets. “Here are some Osage oranges for your farm’s Christmas sale. They repel spiders,” he said. “I’d charge a buck a piece.”

I did, and sold out of the citrus-scented arachnid chasers. The ripe fruit contains a chemical (2, 3, 4, 5-tetrahy-droxystilbene) that deters many insects.

By the way, you need a male tree nearby for the female to bear fruit.

What I enjoy most about the Osage orange, named bois d’arc by early French explorers, is foraging them to design Christmas decorations.

Last week, my friend Marilyn emailed a timely reminder with a photo of her Osage oranges she gathered on the west side of the state. Post haste, I drove to my local source and filled two bags.

Dear Reader, we have Pierre Chouteau to thank for obtaining the species from an Osage Indian who harvested the fruit about three hundred miles west of his village.  

And thank you, Mister Meriwether, for putting Monsieur Chouteau’s saplings into Thomas Jefferson’s hands. The chartreuse fruit arrives just in time to make merry snowmen for Christmas.


A traditional Thanksgiving

A ceramic turkey from my mother-in-law's kiln, and a pie pumpkin from Yate's cider mill

As most post WWII American parents, Mom and Dad celebrated Thanksgiving Day with extended family—first and second cousins, aunts and uncles from O’Brien and McCoy clans. 

The folk at Mom’s table primarily came from Dad’s people who moved from Kentucky to Detroit for work. Dad was the O’Brien baby with nine siblings, Mom the eldest McCoy child with four younger brothers.

There’s nothing Mom loved more than cooking for family, and Dad’s people knew it.

These family dynamics granted our grown O’Brien cousins a place at the table with the adults. My two sisters and I took our Thanksgiving plates to the coffee table in the living room, close enough to hear our company’s chatter and laughter.

Uprooted Appalachians who needed one another, the gluten in Mom’s light rolls held us pilgrims together.  

I can still taste Mom’s mashed potatoes and gravy, candied yams, and pecan pie. Those Thanksgiving Day gatherings in Detroit were the happiest years of my childhood.

I doubt my mother knew what historians claim as the first thanksgiving feast in 1621 with the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians. More important matters clung to Mom’s apron strings. What my sisters and I learned about this national holiday, we heard from Sunday school or public school teachers.

Nonetheless, my mother personified the spiritual meaning of Thanksgiving Day by serving two families bonded by marriage.

As for my father, the celebration offered the opportunity to attach the lights to his movie camera and capture his folk passing turkey platters, gravy bowls, and dishes of dressing around Mom’s candlelit table.  

And I’m forever grateful he did. Whenever I watch Dad’s home movies, I pause on faces at the dining room table on Joann Street and test my memory. Upon my last review, I realized my sisters and I are the only surviving family members from that gathering in 1957.

For a brief season while we raised our parents’ sixteen grandchildren, my four sisters and I rotated as hostess for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.

Alas, that bountiful season is long past, three generations of Warren and Sadie O’Brien’s offspring sown in Kentucky, California, North Carolina, Tennessee, Atlanta, and Indiana.

Two years ago, for the first time in our marriage, my husband and I walked into a Bob Evans in Kentucky and ordered our Thanksgiving meal. Although the food tasted delicious, it felt odd to have someone work and serve me rather than their family.

When we found ourselves alone on Thanksgiving last year, we decided to drive to Frankenmuth, on the way stop by the place we rented on Center Avenue in Bay City as newlyweds.

Although good sports about the adventure, the dinner couldn’t come close to Bob Evans or home cooking. I resolved Thanksgiving is about preparing good food for my candlelit family table. No mater how small.

Dear Reader, as modern grandparents of a grand-dog, this Thanksgiving I tie my apron and cook with our youngest daughter who said, “Your traditional Thanksgiving menu, please.”

I’ll bake Mom’s light rolls and she'll take videos.

The redemptive voice of music

Sergei Rachmaninoff, Russian musician and composer, April 1,1873 - March 28,1943

As a young mother, I anticipated laundry day like a little vacation. After my husband and our three girls walked out the side door for work and school, I heaved a sigh and finished breakfast dishes in silence—listened to that still, small voice.

I ran run up and down two flights of stairs cleaning house and spinning laundry from baskets to washer to dryer to baskets.If you’re a young mother, or once were, you know the drill.

After lunch I sat on the sofa in our knotty pine basement and folded towels and washcloths, underwear and socks, dishcloths, sports uniforms, linens from four beds, etc.

If my dinner menu didn’t distract me—or a daughter’s orthodontist appointment, or various interruptions a household of five people and three ducks present on any given day—I might catch Bill Kennedy’s Showtime while folding clothes in the afternoon.

           But my visit with Metro Detroit’s beloved curmudgeon suffered a downside. Seldom could I sit through the movie’s end due to carpool pickup.

           However, one laundry day I found myself freed from the duty when I tuned in to Bill Kennedy’s theme song, Just in Time.

           From the first five minutes of I’ve Always Loved You (1946), the cast and music composed by twelve classical masters wove a love story with potent psychological drama.  

Myra, the lead female character, believes she loves her tyrannical and womanizing maestro, Leopold Goronoff. Before an audience in Carnegie Hall, he deliberately destroys her career upon her debut while she performs Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor.

Does she overcome this betrayal?

Other than bits of Beethoven and Mozart, my knowledge of symphonic orchestration lay limited in my father’s favorite album, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

Of the Beach Boys, Lettermen, Righteous Brothers, Beatles, and Motown era, I’d never heard music speak from such depths of despair, hope, and triumph as in Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto. And without one word.

Composed in 1901, Rachmaninoff wrote his most famous symphony in recovery from depression after his Piano Concerto No. 1 received brutal reviews opening night. In 1917, Rachmaninoff and his family fled Russia’s Revolution to America’s freedom.

           With this in mind, I better understand the romantic and redemptive voices within Rachmaninoff’s second concerto. I perceive a link between the day folding clothes in my basement to my recent return to the music and movie I’ve Always Loved You.

As Rachmaninoff recovered from despair, Myra mends from Goronoff’s merciless offense. Decades later, in her return to Carnegie Hall’s piano, Myra sees through the maestro’s ego to the man who always loved her and trusted in her love.

Dear Reader, this past February my husband and I met our youngest daughter downtown Detroit for dinner. Afterward, we walked to Orchestra Hall on Woodward Avenue and found our seats in the fourth row for Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concert No. 2.

There, pianist Simon Trpceski from Macedonia spanned his fingers over the keys. Just in time, he reminded me failure and betrayal are not fatal.

God has always loved us. Just listen to Rachmaninoff.

Culinary Comforts and Companionship

Please be on the lookout for Natco brown-glazed tiles

An email from Joyce popped up on my computer screen. As she respects my workday, I supposed the subject important.

“Would you have a few minutes available for a short conversation this evening? I want to ask you about the Cook farm dairy,” she wrote.

Well, Joyce knows how to hook her reader. She also knows Cook’s produces my special order lavender lemon honey ice cream. But she didn’t know my favorite Cook’s Farm Dairy flavor is Cow Pie—dark chocolate, caramel, cashews.

A Rochester Hills resident, Joyce got wind of a restoration project underway on the historic dairy barn of the Rochester Hills Museum at the Van Hoosen Farm. She’d been foraging abandoned farms for the hollow, square brown-glazed clay Natco tiles to complete accurate preservation of the Van Hoosen barn.

Beware. Once Joyce scents a challenge, she won’t stop until she wipes the manure off her hands in utter delight (pun intended).

“I’d be happy to call Cook’s in the morning,” I said. “I’ve not talked with Tom the ice cream maker for months. Raised on a Michigan dairy farm, he might have a lead.”

Mind, ice cream of one flavor or form ranks number one in my culinary comforts. Mom served vanilla ice cream with her fruit pies of the season. Come summer, she made pineapple or banana ice cream. On special occasions, we walked into Sander’s for a hot fudge sundae.

“There’s an old farm at the Coats and Oakwood crossroads,” Tom said the following morning. “There’s another farm in the area, but I can’t remember the exact location. I’ll call you if I do.”

“How was Cook’s season this year?” I asked.

“The best ever. People came as far as 100 miles.”

“Did you have some media interest?”

“Sure did. We had to decline the last reporter because we couldn’t keep up with the demand,” Tom said.

I called Joyce with Tom’s reference and returned to my novella in progress. The following afternoon, she drove into my driveway.

“I left you two voicemails,” she said. “I hope I’m not intruding.” She carried a small cooler by the strap.

While we emptied a pot Asam lavender tea, in fits of elated revelations Joyce said, “Here’s the most remarkable thing. It wasn’t the Coats and Oakwood farm where I got the lead for the tile. It was the other farm I happened to pass by. The farmer said he grew up on the Van Hoosen Farm! His parents managed their chicken and turkey production.”

“Well, what did he say about the Natco tiles?”

She smiled like a child at Christmas. Ceremoniously, she hauled her rescued treasure into the kitchen. “We’re looking for something similar to this!” Then she unzipped the cooler. My goodness! She removed a carton of Cow Pie ice cream.

“For your contribution to the barn project,” she said.

Dear Reader, I scooped dark chocolate ice cream with caramel and cashews into two bowls.

Oh, the blessed comfort of companionship and Cow Pie ice cream.

The definition of peregrinate 'per-uh-gru-nate

Kelly, my California daughter, and I visit the Japanese Garden in the Golden Gate State Park

It is a pretty coincidence that those who enjoy gardens and gardening also enjoy travel. Richardson Wright, The Gardener’s Bed-Book


Perhaps it’s my Celtic spirit of adventure and botanic name Iris that call me to rove garden paths.

Back in 1958, a child new to a muddy subdivision, I turned my bike onto the driveway of the only lawn on our block.

Lo and behold! I found shrubbery and blooming gardens in the backyard. June, the lady of the house, knelt before a flowerbed.

                  There, she introduced me to her Jack in the Pulpit and commenced my fascination with plants.

“Would you like to help weed?” June asked.

I went to my knees for my first lesson in discerning the differences between weeds and floras, a never-ending quest.

A few summers after, with Mom’s permission to expand my boundaries beyond Aunt June’s white brick ranch, I guided my blue bike into the woods at the end of our block.

Oh my goodness! A mossy pond and red patch of rhubarb! I can still taste that strawberry rhubarb pie Mom made with my rhubarb rescued from an abandoned farmstead.

I ‘ve since sauntered the breathtaking parks leading to Leeds Castle in England. Thrice, my California daughter and I have sipped tea together within the vast Japanese Garden of the Golden Gate Park. Twice, we’ve hiked Muir Woods together.

Last February, after three tours of the Emerald Isle within twenty years, my husband and I booked the “Country Roads of Scotland” excursion for this past April to celebrate our Fiftieth Wedding Anniversary.

When that didn’t happen, I dove into reading Richardson Wright’s The Story of Gardening and Andrea Wulf’s Founding Gardeners. Both authors spoke of Philadelphia’s historic Bartram ‘s Gardens.

My feet itched to stroll the grounds of the oldest nursery in our United States—the eaarth where our Founding Fathers met with botanist John Bartram the sweltering summer of 1776 during a recess of the Continental Congress.

I planned an October visit for the benefit of Pennsylvania’s autumnal, rolling landscape. Meanwhile, I returned to West Virginia in June for my annual pilgrimage and toured the little hospital of my birth, a building in great disrepair. I recorded more family and local history.

I bided my time gardening, playing croquet with friends, and putting up our vegetable garden.

The first and second week of October, I combed Bartram’s Gardens website for information regarding Pennsylvania’s restrictions related to America’s long-term malaise.

Alas, I found conflicting information. However, one thing was clear—the bathrooms are closed to the public.

Well, that alone disqualifies the destination. We can’t traverse the 300 year-old gardens within the thirty-mile Garden Capitol District without available toilets.

The voicemail box for the Welcome Center was full. One website page said the Welcome Center was open; another page indicated the center was open limited hours.

And yes, “please wear a mask while walking the gardens.”

Dear Reader, who needs Pennsylvania’s colors or Bartram’s Gardens in October when you live in Michigan? 

There’s no prettier state to peregrinate with a bare face.