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Sunday, October 27, 2013

Know your Christmas Trees

Once Thanksgiving is behind us, there comes the search for that perfect Christmas tree. Tree farms become busy places as people reserve their favorite pick with that telltale "taken" tag. 

The idea of symbolizing evergreen trees goes way back into history. Because evergreens stay green and don't drop their needles, with the arrival of the winter solstice people would look to the evergreen tree as a symbol of life's triumph over death. In addition to the evergreen trees, holly and mistletoe were also collected and brought into the home to ward off evil spirits and show hope for the forthcoming spring.

Our modern Christmas tree evolved from the early traditions of the Germans and Scandinavians during the Middle Ages.  It is said that Martin Luther began the tradition of decorating trees to celebrate Christmas. The story goes that around 1500, Martin Luther was so impressed by the beauty of snow covered evergreens shimmering in the moonlight, that he set up a little tree indoors, and decorated it with candles to honor Christ's birth. The balsam fir twigs resemble crosses, so it is said that perhaps that is how the firs became so popular as Christmas trees.

History has it that the Christmas tree tradition came to the United States with the Hessian troops during the American Revolution, or with German immigrants to Pennsylvania and Ohio. The custom didn't take off very quickly. The Puritans in New England didn't even celebrate Christmas and throughout New England, schools remained open, with a penalty for those who chose to stay home in celebration. 

Supposedly, the Christmas tree market was born in 1851 when Catskill farmer Mark Carr hauled two ox sleds of evergreens into New York City and sold them on the street. By 1900, one in five American families had a Christmas tree and within 20 years the custom was nearly universal.

The business of Christmas tree farms didn't take off until the hard economic times of the depression. Nurserymen needed to come up with another means for selling their evergreens, as people just didn't have the money for landscaping. How brilliant to begin cultivating trees, and pruning them for the attractive, symmetrical shape desired over wild trees.

Only six species account for about 90 percent of the nation's Christmas tree industry. Scotch pine ranks first with about 40 percent of the market, followed with Douglas fir which accounts for about 34 percent.

Firs (Abies Species) are very popular because they don't shed their needles as the tree dries out and retain that wonderful smell of the outdoors.

Fraser Fir is a favorite. Its 1" needles are silvery-green and soft to the touch, and being there is space between the branches, the Fraser is easy to decorate. The branches are firm which is ideal to hold heavier ornaments without them sliding off.

Noble Fir is a deep green and a very lovely branch shape. This feature makes them very desirable for making into fresh wreaths. Spacing and strength of the branches also make this tree easy to hand and hold ornaments.

Douglass Firs are beautiful and popular trees with their soft shiny green needles. The problem with this type is that they tend to be sheared so perfectly into the conical shape, too little space is left between branches for the decorations.

Colorado Blue Spruce is beautiful with its blue, silvery foliage and strong limbs. Spruces are good for those heavier ornaments. Just be aware that the spruces are much more prickly than the firs.
The Meyer Spruce, native to Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, is another type of spruce tree known for its hardiness.

 Norway Spruce are great if you only want to have the tree in the house for a week or two. This tree type doesn't hold its needles well and it is important to keep it properly watered to maintain some needle retention.
The most popular in Europe, and usually the cheapest, the Norwegian capital city Oslo, provides the cities of New York, London (the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree), Edinburgh and Washington D.C. with a Norway Spruce, which is placed at the most central square of each city.

Eastern White Pines are beautiful with their long, feathery needles, but may be too flexible to support many decorations. Pines are popular to use as garlands, wreaths and centerpieces.

Scotch Pines have wonderful needle retention and being they resist drying out, last indoors for the duration of the holiday season. However, their needles are very sharp, so care has to be taken during handling.

Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree,  Manhattan, New York City

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Pineapple Sage, An Autumn Beauty

Young Pineapple Sage shown in June
Flowering Pineapple Sage in September

One of the fascinating aspects of our natural environment is how the plant and animal worlds are so interwoven in their life cycles and the seasons.
Summer's end may see a winding down in energy of our flower gardens as they go to seed, the days are shorter, the nights colder. But then there comes a burst of color as late flowering plants offer much needed nourishment to our beneficial insects and migrating hummingbirds. Pineapple Sage is one such plant.

Ruby Throated Hummingbird
It may seem like the busy activity of our hummingbirds suddenly disappear as the calender pages turn to the fall months. Resident hummingbirds that have been around all summer may already be gone but we have to remember those that are migrating and are simply passing through. We had the fascinating privilege of observing three hummingbirds flitting around our deck one cool evening in October. I didn't know they were active at night so it was a neat sight.

Pineapple Sage (Salvia elegans) is just that, a beautiful elegant plant. The genus name comes from the Latin word for "save". In ancient times it was often the official sage of the apothecary, a sacred herb used to treat a wide range of diseases. The Native Americans used it for smudging their souls and purifying the air.

Pineapple Sage is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae) which all have square stems and opposite leaves. It is a tender perennial which means it survives winter only if it's in a sheltered spot and doesn't get below 45 degrees, hardy only to Zone 7. If you live in Zones 8 to 10, where temperatures go no lower than 30 degrees, your pineapple sage will probably winter over.

 It is usually grown from seeds sown indoors in the spring or gardeners pot up the plants in late summer and keep them in an unheated garage until spring. You can get two years out of them this way before they get too woody and weak. By that time it is best to take stem cuttings from the new growth that emerges in the spring and set them to root in damp potting soil. Once put out in the desired garden area they do best in moist, well-drained soil and full sun, though will tolerate a bit of light shade.

Planted directly in the ground Pineapple Sage can reach 4 feet high and wide. The oval, lanceolate leaves are an attractive yellowish-green which are a beautiful contrast with the dark-red, hairy stems and bright-red blooms. These bright scarlet, tubular flowers are what attracts the hummingbirds. Each spike produces 6 to 12 flowers arranged in widely spaced whorls around the stem. The blooming season is brief, only about two weeks, but timed accordingly with the hummingbirds migration period before frost arrives.

Though most people grow this beauty as an ornamental for their late summer blooms, there are other uses for this delicious, pineapple scented plant. When people think of sage they usually think of its use for poultry and holiday stuffing. But being sage is a good source of vitamin K and high antioxidant levels it is wise to add it to your cooking year round. Added to grain side dishes its slightly peppery taste will enliven the taste of wild and brown rice, barley and lentils as well as sauces and stews. Thread the leaves between meat, mushrooms and onions on kebabs.

The fresh leaves add extra flavor to fruit salad, drinks and teas. Pineapple sage has a wonderful fragrance but little flavor, so for a good herbal tea combine it with the white varegated Pineapple Mint.

Sage leaves and flowers can also be dried for later use or to add to wreaths and potpourris.
Whole leaves retain their flavor better than those that are crushed so wait until ready to use them to crush for cooking.
To dry:
You can use a dehydrator or screens to dry the leaves or use the following method:

Harvest the leaves still on the stem
If necessary wash under running water to remove any dirt.
Place in a colander to dry and pat with a paper towel.
Bunch the stems together and put into a brown paper bag.
Close the bag and tie with twine or string.
Poke holes in the bag for ventilation.
Hang bag by the string in a warm, dark and airy area such as attic or closet.
Allow to dry for two to three weeks, checking occasionally for mold.
If there are signs of mold, throw away the bag.
Once thoroughly dry with no soft spots, snap the leaves from the stems.
Stems can be discarded.
Store dried sage leaves in an airtight container away from light. Dried herbs lose their potency after six months to a year.

Below is a yummy jelly recipe from Lemon Verbena Lady

Makes four 8-ounce jars
• One 12-ounce can of Old Orchard Pineapple Juice, frozen concentrate, reconstituted with 3 cans of water (It makes three recipes of jelly once it is reconstituted.)
• 2 cups of pineapple juice
• 1 1/2 cups of pineapple sage leaves, packed
• 3 1/2 cups of sugar
• 2 tablespoons of rice wine vinegar, white wine vinegar OR lemon juice, your choice of one
• 1 pinch of salt
• 1 pouch of liquid pectin
1. Wash and dry the pineapple sage in paper towels, then coarsely chop it. Put the pineapple sage in a large saucepan, and crush the leaves using the bottom of a glass. (I use a food processor.) Add the juice, bring slowly to a boil, and boil for 10 seconds. Remove the saucepan from the heat, cover, and let sit for 15 minutes to steep.
2. Strain 1 1/2 cups of liquid from the saucepan and pour through a fine strainer into another saucepan. Add the vinegar of your choice (or lemon juice), salt and sugar, and bring to a hard boil while stirring. When the boil can't be stirred down, add the pectin. Return to a hard boil that can't be stirred down and boil for exactly 1 minute, then remove saucepan from heat.
3. Skim off the foam and pour the hot jelly into four hot, sterilized (in boiling water for 10 minutes) half-pint jelly jars. Leave 1/2-inch (or less) headspace and seal at once with sterilized 2-piece lids. I just leave my lids in hot water not boiling until you need them. Can the jars in a boiling water bath for 5 minutes.
4. To use: I would use this jelly on thumbprint cookies, cream cheese and crackers for a quick appetizer and a teaspoon or two as a glaze for the last 15 minutes of baking chicken or pork.

Any type of sage can be used for this lovely facial mask. This recipe comes from Janice Cox's book "Natural Beauty At Home".

• 1/2 cup boiling water
• 1 tablespoon fresh pineapple sage leaves
• 3 tablespoons oatmeal
• 2 tablespoons honey
• 1 egg white
1. Pour water over sage leaves; cool completely. Strain and add sage liquid to oatmeal, honey and egg white. Mix until smooth and creamy.
2. Spread mixture on clean skin and leave on for 15 to 20 minutes. Rinse with warm water and pat skin dry.

The oatmeal and honey rid pores of any surface impurities and the egg white is astringent. For dry skin, add a teaspoon of olive oil as well. Follow with a moisturizer.
Makes 2 oz. Store leftover mask mixture in the refrigerator.

Sage is also known as an aid to help with dandruff and graying hair. For this purpose you would make it into an infusion (like a strong tea) and use as a hair rinse. Pineapple Sage would give it a tropical scent.

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Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Drought Resistant & Attracts Hummingbirds? Plant Spider Flowers

 Being we are into October, Halloween themes are on our minds. Since spiders fit into that thought, the idea for this post came as I was saving seed from one of my absolute favorite summertime annuals, the Spider Flower.

A cottage garden flower that is about as maintenance free as you can get is the Cleome, or better known as Spider Flower (Cleome hasslerana). It doesn't attract spiders. It got that nickname because of the spidery-like flowers with long, waving stamens.

After all the excitement to which we greet spring and the energy we put into our gardens and flowers it can be very defeating to witness the slow demise of our beloved plantings due to extreme heat and too little rainfall. By planting drought resistant bedding plants, you can relieve yourself of the tiresome chore of watering and babying your plants. Cleome is heat and drought tolerant.

Cleome grows in all zones and once it is planted and goes through a growing season, left on its own it will drop seeds and reappear the following spring. These plants reach a height of 6 feet and if spaced about a foot apart will have a beautiful span as it spreads its strong, waving stems. An attractive cottage flower, this annual looks great amidst shrubs, planted in mass, or as a background plant. Keep in mind that you may not want it near walkways or a doorway because it is pricky to brush up against and has a musky odor somewhat like Cannabis. The smell isn't one that you get by sticking your nose in and taking a whiff. It's more of a subtle scent that you may or may not smell in passing.

Start seeds indoors four weeks before the last frost or plant them directly outdoors in spring after danger of frost has passed. Germination takes about 10 days. The smaller the seed the closer to the surface it should be planted. The rule usually is to plant a seed at a depth of 3x its size. These tiny seeds need some light to germinate. Try to space the seeds about a foot apart. If planted too thickly and not thinned,  they will be small and spindly. Cleome tolerates heat and dry weather, and offers you a variety of shades in pink, somewhat purple and white color all summer long.
Staking is usually not necessary, and they are not bothered by pests and disease. Strong winds may bend or knock them over but overall they are very tough plants. If you need any more convincing,  they are a favorite of hummingbirds, which is something many us love to have come visit.

By September you'll notice the formation of seed pods. By early October these pods will begin to split and spill its pepper-like seed. You can just let them fall where they may or you can gather some to plant in another designated spot next spring. Those on the ground will lie dormant till then. The ones you gather should be stored in a dry, cool place.