Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Rhubarb: the Beautiful, Edible Plant

Nothing says "spring is here" more deliciously than the giant ornamental rhubarb leaves in Lola's vegetable garden. The leaves are beautiful but poisonous. The red celery-like stalks are the edible part. Botanically, rhubarb is a vegetable, but the stalks are too tart to eat without the addition of sugar, honey or artificial sweetener such as Splenda. Rhubarb taste fruity when made into pies, muffins, or jams. It is exceptionally delicious with strawberries, so I always add a few cups to my recipe for extra flavor and nutrition.

The rhubarb plant above is three years old. My former neighbor gave it to me because her backyard is too rocky and shady, and the poor thing was not producing enough stalks for her favorite rhubarb and strawberry jam. I have been mulching the plant with compost and refrained from harvesting the few stalks last year. This year, the plant is established enough to share the harvest with the previous owner. And I decided to make my own version of the jam that she really like.

Her recipe for the jam had only three ingredients:

5 cups of chopped rhubarb
3 cups of sugar
3 oz strawberry flavored Jello gelatin.

I thought it had too much sugar, so I up the "fruit" to sugar ratio to 3:1. And as I mentioned earlier, I like strawberries with my rhubarb. Real strawberries. So I tried to tweak it some more to accommodate my own taste. My sweet tooth is not very sweet. I usually just drink plain water, or if I like some fizz, 3 parts carbonated water and 1 part pure juice. Juices, sodas and fruit flavored bottled water are just too sweet for my taste.

The jam is really easy to make. It also looks beautiful and it is delicious on toast, scones, yogurt, cheesecakes etc. It's a great way to enjoy rhubarb and strawberries off season, and it does not (I hope) send my blood sugar to the dreaded "Pre-D" zone.

LoLa's Rhubarb and Strawberry Jam

6 cups thinly sliced rhubarb
3 cups sugar (+1/2 -1 cup more if your strawberries are not very sweet)
3 cups chopped fresh strawberries
3 oz strawberry flavored gelatin

In a large heavy saucepan, combine rhubarb and sugar. Let it set for 5 to 8 hours or overnight at room temperature. Bring to a boil over medium high heat. Add the strawberries. Stir and continue to boil hard for 6 minutes. Stir a few times but be careful and watch out for (hot) splatters. Stir in the gelatin. Turn off heat. Ladle the hot jam into sterilized jars leaving a 3/4 inch space on top. Let it cool at room temperature, then refrigerate or freeze. Do not store at room temperature. Only jams that are processed in boiling water bath can be safely stored at room temperature. Makes 3 1/2 pints.

Moonlight Garden

A garden that glows in the dark and sparkles under the light of the moon is called a moonlight garden. Last year, the white petunias in Lola's Garden looked like giant stars gazing at the moon. It was like the stars have fallen from the sky and floated just above the ground. And like the unseen orchestra in a Broadway show, the Alyssum and the Nicotiana added drama and suspense by filling the air not with music, but with their sweet and intoxicating scent. I wished I could have fetch up a tent and sleep under the moon.

It was around nine thirty in the evening, when I took the picture of a Hosta and a Cerastium, to illustrate the reflective properties of the color white under a moonless sky. White flowering plants are the principal players in a moonlight garden. Some plants with variegated foliage like the Hosta Patriot also plays a minor role. The Cerastium or Snow in Summer is a creeping perennial with silvery leaves and sprigs of white flowers. Spokane is Zone 5 and Snow in Summer blooms in spring. The mound of silvery leaves that covers the matted base is probably where it got its common name. It is a beautiful plant for rock gardens and retaining walls and although the plant is invasive, the massive growth is easy to control with a shear. With Cerastium and Alyssum creeping around the pavers, the edge of the patio looked much softer and cooler to my eyes.

Sweet William, a fragrant biennial, also spiced up and sweetened the atmosphere of Lola's moonlight garden. The white flowers in this group are the only one that sparkles at night. The rest disappears in the dark. Sweet William doesn't produce flowers the first year and the plant or seedlings are not readily available. Nicotiana is an annual but the plant is also hard to find. However, both plants are easy to start from seed. Alyssum is one of my favorite annual. Very easy to grow, low maintenance, cheap and it happily reseed itself year after year.

Moonflower, a relative of Morning Glory, sounds like the perfect vine for a moonlight garden. "White blooms that are 5-6 inches across", "blooms in the evening after the sun goes down", and "the fragrance is lovely and unforgettable". Ipomoea Alba is definitely a must have for Lola's moonlight garden.

The seed had a very hard shell that requires soaking, or cracking to germinate. I started it very early in the greenhouse. Two out of six germinated. Before it was planted outside, the seedlings where transplanted in a gallon pot where it grew into two very healthy plants. But once it was outside it took forever to start growing again. In fact it didn't resumed growing until the end of July. The hot days and warm nights of the summer months really made the vine grew very fast, and it started producing a lot of buds in late August. September came, and still no blooms. Then the first killing frost arrived. It was a total bust.

As for the design, I personally don't bother. I have no desire to make my garden look like a secret landing for UFOs. Or anything that look like a Leo is trying too hard. I'm contented just knowing that under the moonlight, the fragrant flowers and the white blooms in Lola's garden are enchanting enough to touch my heart and go dancing in the dark.

Monday, June 8, 2009

A Swarm of Honey Bees

Reports on the rapidly disappearing honey bees, (aka Colony Collapse Disorder) has been on the news since 2006. For the last three years, I honestly have no idea what they were talking about. Lola's flower garden always have a lot of honey bees and bumble bees, and a few aggressive and antisocial yellow jackets. Maybe because I do not use pesticides or herbicides. So what's killing them world wide? It depends on who's talking. Could be the chemicals? Genetically modified crops? Radiations from cell phones? Global warming? Nobody really knows for sure. I do know that they like honeysuckles, Echinaceas, Iceland poppies, and the Benary's Giant zinnias I got from Johnny's Selected Seed.

The honeysuckles and Echinaceas are perennials, and the poppies are reseeding themselves. So I only have to plant zinnias to bring them back this year. Well, nothing in this group are blooming yet but the honey bees are already swarming on my neighbor's tree across the street. Not knowing what to do, she called pest control and an apiarist from Greenbluff, a farming community just a few miles from Spokane, collected the bees and gently put them in a hive. He did it so carefully and easily, it was so amazing to watch him handled the swarm with bare hands. Must have lots of experience doing it.

Honey bees belongs to a social group of insects that lives in colonies with a queen and thousands of workers. The workers are all female but the queen is the only one who lays eggs. She mates with several male bees called drones to collect their sperms, and lays thousands of eggs. If she fertilized the egg the larva will hatch as a female bee. The female bee does nothing but work to support the queen and her colony. Drones are the result of unfertilized eggs. The drones are not physically able to work because their bodies lacked the structure to carry pollen or nectar to make honey. Their only job is to mate with the queen. The act requires them to lost part of their anatomy and so they die shortly after the job is done.

Swarming happens after the workers in an overcrowded hive, raised a new queen by feeding a young female with "royal jelly". The new queen stays in the hive. The old queen who has been forced out of her home takes about half of the workers, and swarmed to find a new home. This reminds me of an art exhibit I saw in Santa Fe, New Mexico, many years ago. It was all about refugees. Life-size, black and white photographs of refugees from all over the world. Some children were clinging to a big tree. I'm not sure if the bees got the idea from humans or is it the other way around? I'm just glad somebody gave the bees a home. I hope a few will come back to visit and graze on their favorite pesticide-free flowers in Lola's garden, and the refugees on those photographs, also found peace and a home somewhere.