My Lavender Clouds: Purple Asters

For the month of September every year my land is graced with sprays of purple asters. This delicate color comes before the burst of autumnal gold and orange of the sugar maples and poplar trees in our forest. These tiny asters are all over my land, and I have to be extra careful to not weed them out of my flower beds in late spring. They are volunteers. Wild, wistful and so welcome.
Large bush of purple asters

Living in Vermont up high – 1800 feet – offers sweeping views of the Green Mountains and the 35 acre emerald green field in front of our house. There is fog cupping the valleys early mornings and coral clouds at sunset. These vistas are a perfect backdrop to my flower gardens that are dense with flowers in the summer. They grow close and crowded. I like it that way − less to weed and prop up. They do it themselves by twisting and twining together in my flower beds. Most of the flowers I don’t know their names. They’ve been given to me by gardeners that divide up the roots of their flowers and thin out their beds. I do neither, preferring my land to have its way and grow thick and lush.

And those asters. I did not plant them. They are a gift of the wild, along with the tiny white and purple violets and yellow trout lilies dotting my “lawn” in early spring. I say lawn but it is really a bit of grass with a hell of a lot of clover and moss and wild flowers intermingled. I especially like the delicate trout lily with its bobbing yellow dangle – a miniature lily. Another wild flower that is a summer visitor is the tall yellow lupine that I leave in groups and carefully mow around. And the beauties of all wild Vermont flowers, the stately orange day lily that I have many circles of. In another ten years on my property, I won’t have any more grass to mow. The wild flowers will have taken over. I hope so.

For now, I’ve got my lavender clouds of asters everywhere on my land. The nights are frosted and the days crisp with the smell of apples in the air. Many of these apple trees all through Vermont are nearly wild too. Years ago they were planted, some a hundred years or more. Now the deer and raccoon and woodchucks can gorge themselves. Every other year, we all get to have a bumper crop of apples. But every year I get to love my delicate purple asters.


Auhtor PhotoDian Parker is a freelance writer for a number of New England publications, including Art New England, the White River Herald, OpEd News, and many others. She is the gallery director for White River Gallery in Vermont and an oil painter. Parker has written about porcupines, old growth trees, architecture, artists, inventors, and immortality. She lives in the backwoods of Vermont at 1800 feet; snowshoeing and working on a short story collection. Photo by the author of flowers from her garden.

View her work at the links below:
Sustaining-Ecstasy
Porcupine Courtship: A Raucous Affair
Stones in Translation
Five Paintings
Artificium
Back of Beyond
The Art of Falling

The Empress of Flowers: Peony

“Had I but four square feet of ground at my disposal, I would plant a peony in the corner and proceed to worship.” –Alice Harding, The Book of the Peony, 1917

Colorful peonies in vasesWhen my mother died a few years ago, I planted her ashes at the base of my peony plants. The peony was her favorite flower, as it is mine. I have seven peony plants but only five bloom – the five that have her ashes. Today those five are in bloom but because we’ve had weeks of rain, I picked many of the buds in the early morning and now, in the house, they are blooming profusely. Peonies fully opened are heady in scent and profoundly beautiful — bowls of beauty. I’ve placed them all around my house – kitchen, living room, dining room, on top of the wood stove, in the bathroom, in the bedroom. I’ve two glorious bouquets next to me as I write this.

Peonies nearly make me swoon with their luxurious bounty, health and exquisite form. When I wake in the morning, I lay my face in their blooms, inhaling their luminous scent, and feel the silky, cool petals on my cheek. I can’t get enough of them.

Even the names of peonies are delightful and varied: Abalone Pearl, Angel Cheeks, Crinkled Linen, Princess of Darkness, Solange, Ursa Minor, and one of my favorites, Sarah Bernhardt. She is deliciously fragrant, and has a rose pink double bloom with a violet tinted center interspersed with salmon. Peony experts describe her as “very floriferous.”

Peonies are hearty, flourishing even when neglected. I like these kinds of plants best. Dandelions, wild chervil, milkweed, sumac – all these so-called weeds thrive no matter what we do to them and to my mind deserve to be respected and revered. When humans are gone, I imagine these plants will thrive, along with returning bees, bats and even more coyotes — creatures that are adaptable and thrive on diversity.

peonies in vasesMy peonies in vases last for weeks for two reasons. One is because I won’t let them go and leave them until the petals lace their way to the floor and the stems are bare. And two, because I change their water every other day with a homemade preservative, as well as shortening their stems slightly at an angle with a sharp knife.

This recipe I found years ago (but I don’t remember where). 1 quart H2O, 2 TBLS fresh lemon juice, 1 TBL sugar, 1/2 TSP bleach — I keep the mixture in the refrigerator.

I have a friend who grows her own peonies for florists and weddings. She can keep her peony buds in the cooler for four weeks as long as she picks the buds early in the morning and plunges them directly into cold water.

bright pink peony in a vaseA few months after my mother died, I bought a Félix Crouse peony, originally from Somerset, England. This peony has ruby red flowers with a silky luster — just like my mom. She had a hedge of these at her home in Connecticut with literally hundreds of blooms. I renamed the flower Fehr Judith, after her. Her maiden name was Judith Fehr (pronounced fair). Today my single plant has nine enormous blooms and more to come. I always try to leave blossoms on each peony plant so when I walk in the garden, my mother is everywhere.

And now, because of the rain, I’ve brought her into the house, to every room, gracing my world with enchantment.

This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready
to break my heart
as the sun rises,
as the sun strokes them with his old, buttery fingers
and they open —
–from “Peonies” by Mary Oliver


Auhtor PhotoDian Parker is a freelance writer for a number of New England publications, including Art New England, the White River Herald, OpEd News, and many others. She is the gallery director for White River Gallery in Vermont and an oil painter. Parker has written about porcupines, old growth trees, architecture, artists, inventors, and immortality. She lives in the backwoods of Vermont at 1800 feet; kayaking, gardening, and recently completing a short story collection.

View her work at the links below:
Sustaining-Ecstasy
Porcupine Courtship: A Raucous Affair
Stones in Translation
Artificium

Photos by the author of peonies from her garden

The Wonderland of Caterpillars’ Creative Camouflage

In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice stumbles upon a large mushroom. She peeps over the edge and encounters a caterpillar, “smoking a long hookah, and taking not the slightest notice of her or anything else.” If Alice had touched the creature, she might have been in for an even bigger shock – forked horns, nasty smells and other repellent tricks designed to send her running to the nearest rabbit hole.

The defense mechanisms of caterpillars are ingenious and varied. They have to be. There are numerous predators that make a meal of these fat, juicy morsels – birds, spiders, other insects, and mammals. Migratory warblers, for example, eat approximately one and one-half times their body weight in caterpillars every day.

I love caterpillars, even though some can leave holes in my flowers and veggie starts. But I will never kill any as they turn into the most glorious of creatures – moths and butterflies. Today there are three flagrant swallowtail butterflies on my Miss Kim lilac bush, gracefully fluttering for its nectar, that were once chubby grubbers.

Butterflies go through many stages: egg, larva, pupa and adult. In the larval stage as caterpillars, their daily agenda is to eat, avoid being eaten, and keep eating. The results are impressive. Some caterpillars can gain up to 20% of their body weight in one hour.

monarch caterpillar eating swan plant in the gardenThe protective creativity of caterpillars is stunning. Monarch caterpillars, for example, have two defense mechanisms – toxicity and warning colors. As they feed on their host plant, the milkweed, they ingest toxic steroids that are stored in their bodies. I used to have many Monarchs every spring and summer flitting gaily among the milkweed I keep in my garden especially for them. In the last two years, sadly, I have seen none. We all know about their serious decline due to loss of habitat and toxic insecticides.

Another plant I grow in my garden is the stinging nettle. Not only is it a wonderful plant to steam lightly and eat, high in vitamin C, the Red Admiral lays its eggs on the stinging nettle leaves, even on the sides of the stinging hairs. The caterpillar bends down the tips of the leaves, fastens them with strands of silk, and then feeds inside these little tents. Such ingenious little creatures!

The Tomato Hornworm is a bright green caterpillar that even has a red horn on its head to help it disappear, along with eight v-shaped markings on its underside. Beware! They are voracious lovers of peppers and eggplants. My beloved Swallowtail caterpillars look like shiny, wet bird droppings (repulsive to most insect-eaters), and also have an orange, y-shaped gland on their neck which gives off a strong odor when threatened, repelling predators, like parasitic wasps and flies.

old world swallowtail butterfly caterpillaOne of my favorite camouflages is the Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar. It looks like a scary snake. One day I was sitting at my picnic table and a gigantic bright, sap green caterpillar with huge black eyes made its way up the table’s leg and spent a good hour with me on the table. What a startling beauty. I now keep my Audubon Field Guide to North American Butterflies close at hand.

Another ingenious costume is the Wavy-Lined Emerald Moth’s. It chews off pieces of the flower or plant that it’s feeding on and affixes the pieces to its back, matching the color and texture of its surroundings. And the gorgeous Saddleback caterpillar wears a brightly colored saddle with spiny, irritating bristles for defense.

To add to nature’s immense creativity, we have caterpillars with long whip-like organs attached to the ends of their bodies. The caterpillars wiggle these organs to frighten away flies. Others evade predators by using a silk line to lower themselves down from branches when disturbed. Many species have a knack for thrashing about violently when approached in order to scare away potential predators.

The Walnut Sphinx caterpillar even makes high pitched whistles that frighten birds. I’ve never heard them whistle, but then we humans don’t register so many of the sounds in nature.

The wonders of the caterpillar world are rich and mystifying. And to my mind, underappreciated. As the comedian George Carlin once said, “The caterpillar does all the work but the butterfly gets all the publicity.” In Alice’s Wonderland, when the caterpillar asks Alice, “Who are you?” Alice hardly knew herself, having changed so much since morning. The caterpillar might have asked himself the same question. He was a caterpillar. Or was he a snake?


Auhtor PhotoDian Parker is a freelance writer for a number of New England publications, including Art New England, the White River Herald, OpEd News, and many others. She is the gallery director for White River Gallery in Vermont and an oil painter. Parker has written about porcupines, old growth trees, architecture, artists, inventors, and immortality. She lives in the backwoods of Vermont at 1800 feet; kayaking, gardening, and recently completing a short story collection.

View her work at the links below:
Sustaining-Ecstasy
Porcupine Courtship: A Raucous Affair
Stones in Translation
Artificium

Top Photo of Monarch caterpillar (Danaus plexippus) by Julie Crean
Photo of Old World Swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio machaon) by Krzysztof Slusarczyk

A Mardi Gras of Edible Flowers

One of my most indelible sensory memories has been the taste of homemade lavender ice cream. It was twenty years ago but I still can remember the delicate flavor of the flower mixed in the cold, smooth, sweet cream. The single scoop of ice cream had an ever so slight tinge of a lavender hue within the off-white; subtle and beautiful. I asked the chef at the original, old Majestic Inn in Anacortes, Washington for the recipe but he refused. “It was my mother’s,” he said, “from the old country.” I have never found lavender ice cream since which even brushes against the splendor of that one, but I did find a close second – ginger ice cream from Vermont’s Strafford Organic Creamery.

Fortunately, you can make your own lavender ice cream, as well as a myriad of other gorgeous recipes made from edible flowers and plants. We all know the dreaded burdock but the young spring root dug up in spring and sautéed in olive oil rivals any of our common root vegetables. Even cattails can be eaten; the shoot before it flowers tastes similar to cucumbers and zucchini. Curly dock leaves can be mixed raw in salads or cooked with pork as you would with mustard or turnip. But how about a wild violet salad?

Peonies in vasesThe queen of nature’s parade in all her colorful fashion is the edible flower. She will dress up any meal or party in fancy dress as well as delight the palate. For an hors d’oeuvre try a dip made with honey, yogurt, lemon and orange zest for begonia blossoms. The crisp texture, sweet citrus flavor and the splashy colors taste sublime and make a lovely center piece for the table. Or a tulip and endive appetizer arranged on a bed of bib lettuce.

In Vermont, we have plenty of zucchini flowers. Most kinds of squash blossoms stuffed with ricotta and grated Asiago cheese make for another spectacular appetizer. Simply take out the pistil of the rinsed flower and stuff it with cheese. Using butter or olive oil in a fry pan, cook up some tomatoes and onions until soft, then gently lay the squash blossoms in the sauce and cook for a few minutes. You can also add toasted almonds or pine nuts, and fresh basil and parsley. Italians often lightly batter and fry the blossoms. Garnish with nasturtium flowers for another lovely center piece.

Edible flowers can be steeped in oil or used to create a vinegar. Just a few of the many flower-infused vinegars are: nasturtium and garlic chive flowers; lavender flowers and blueberries; loveage and oregano flowers; hibiscus; and even calendula combined with lemon thyme flowers, lemon basil flowers, and lemon zest. The recipe for these vinegars is simple and easy. Fill a glass jar with 2 parts white vinegar (preferably organic) and 1 part flower. Keep in a cool, dark place for 2 weeks and then strain. The flower-infused vinegar and oil will keep up to 6 months. Lavender and rose petal vinegar can be used for softening the skin in bathwater or making hair soft and shiny as a hair rinse. Mixed with distilled water, these vinegars also are wonderful facial tonics, restoring the acid balance to the skin after washing.

Flower butters can be savory or sweet depending on the flower. Nasturtiums and chive blossoms chopped and mixed in butter make for a savory experience. Melted on a crisp baguette or over vegetables, fish or poultry, the result is simply scrumptious. Sweet butters can be made with lavender, roses, violets, and pineapple sage flowers. These make for a great mystery filling between layers of sponge or pound cake.

Baby roses, Johnny-jump-ups, violets, scented geraniums, orange blossoms (heavenly), edible pea blossoms (not sweet peas which are poisonous) and borage are great for candying. Candied flowers can be used to decorate cakes, cookies, ice cream and hors d’oeuvres. Weddings, baby showers and any party will dress up dramatically by adding candied flowers. Candied flowers are crystallized using egg white and sugar (as a preservative).

Remember the classic tea sandwiches with cucumber and cream cheese from the 50’s? Try making them with watercress, blue violets and white watercress blossoms. Not only are the sandwiches pretty, the new flavors add a spicy taste and smell. Salads with nasturtium and borage blossoms are colorful and delicious. Try making cookies with rose-scented geranium jelly or tea cakes with anise hyssop and lemon.

Vermont’s prolific daylily is also edible. If harvested just as the flower pod has begun to open, the flower has a sweet flavor and a crisp texture, wonderful in salads. You can make daylily fritters by frying a creamy mixed batter in hot oil. Even better is pan-searing the lilies in pre-heated coconut oil. Serve the fried lilies with butter, preserves, and cinnamon or as a savory side dish.

Lavender is easy to grow in Vermont and can be used in so many recipes. Lavender sugar and lavender salt are simple to make. For the sugar, add ½ cup lavender flowers to 2 cups superfine sugar. For the salt, add 4 tbsp. dried lavender flowers and 1 cup fine salt. The salt is great for sprinkling on asparagus and wilted spinach salad. There’s also lavender goat cheese spread, lavender roasted beets as well as lavender shortbread, cookies and scones.

And rose petals! Harbor a hint of the Middle East in your food. Rose petal syrup can be made from 2 cups of rose petals and 2/3 cup sugar. Rose petal sorbet calls for 1 cup of the rose petal syrup, 1 bottle of Gewürtzraminer grape juice, 4 large rose blossoms and 1 egg white. All these recipes can be found online and are easy, not to mention beautiful and tasty. How about stir-fried beef with anise hyssop? Try your salmon grilled ever so lightly on both sides, sprinkle with rosemary blossoms in bloom and finely chopped rosemary and lemon wedges. Served on a large white platter, this meal will be an art piece.

In fact, using edible flowers in food is a work of art. Your food becomes a Mardi Gras of color and flavor. You can mix and arrange the delicate colors to your hearts content. The ways these flowers can be used are only limited by your imagination. Try experimenting, using them in drinks, jellies, salads, soups, syrups and main dishes. Vermont edible flowers are plentiful. Enjoy the bounty. And don’t forget our beloved dandelion, highly medicinal and yummy. There are countless ways to use them. Enjoy!


Sonya’s Stuffed Zucchini Blossoms

Rinse blossoms lightly, snap off the stems and stuff with ricotta cheese. Prepare a light tomato sauce – melt tomatoes with basil and some salt (no onions or garlic). Lay blossoms in sauce for 3 minutes. Turn over for another 3 minutes. The blossoms & cheese will melt into sauce.

To fry the blossoms: Make a water and flour mixture. Insert an anchovy and a piece of hard cheese, such as Fontina, into each blossom. KEEP the stems. Dip blossoms into the mixture and then dip into boiling oil for a few moments. Let cool for a minute. Serve, using the stems as a handle.


Auhtor PhotoDian Parker is a freelance writer for a number of New England publications, including Art New England, the White River Herald, OpEd News, and many others. She is the gallery director for White River Gallery in Vermont and an oil painter. Parker has written about porcupines, old growth trees, architecture, artists, inventors, and immortality. She lives in the backwoods of Vermont at 1800 feet; kayaking, gardening, and recently completing a short story collection. Photo by the author of flowers from her garden.

View her work at the links below:
Sustaining-Ecstasy
Porcupine Courtship: A Raucous Affair
Stones in Translation
Artificium