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Watercress in Winter

It might seem an odd time of year to be writing about watercress. It’s a thing we usually associate with summer: cress sandwiches, cress in the salad.

But at a mountain hot springs I found a little warm stream where watercress grows year-round. You can see frost sculptures on the grasses right next to it, but the watercress thrives. You can’t see the snow, because it doesn’t start until you get a bit away from the stream, but it’s there. Frozen hard.

This is one of the things I like about wild plants. They are opportunists. They live, on bare rock,  in shade, in dry and very wet and inhospitable places – and they ask nothing of us. Although when I met up with this cress, I offered my appreciation for this brilliant green in a winter landscape, and I took a few leaves.

There’s something about wild food that’s unlike any other. It may have to do with the way the climates and soil and exposure shape the plant, and give it nutrients you often don’t find in cultivated ones. It may be that when you eat a wild plant, it connects you to the landscape you’re in.

The many Maidu who lived near that hot springs would not have had watercress in their diet, because watercress is a European plant. I have found it growing wild in more than one California stream, though. Probably it was brought here by gold miners looking to avoid scurvy. Or maybe it was brought by the many horticulturalists who followed the gold miners. Whoever brought it, it has settled in happily.

It would have helped with the scurvy many miners suffered from (they ate nothing but beans and whiskey, or close to it), as it’s high in C, as well as vitamin E and beta-carotene. For minerals, you have phosphorus, calcium and iron.

If you want to gather watercress yourself, remember that, while it only grows in flowing water, it will grow in polluted flowing water. So be sure the stream is clean. Juicy plants such as watercress and lettuce are chock-full of whatever pollutants and pesticides are in the ground and water, and I wish commercial lettuce growers would think of this.

Watercress is pretty easy to recognize, especially if you’re a gardener: it’s in the cabbage family, and it has the rounded leaves a lot of brassicas do. In the case of watercress, the leaves are strung on the arms of loose rosettes of the plant, which spread in all directions, lolling in water.

One of the easiest ways to recognize watercress, though is the taste: a peppery greenness that reminds you of its relative, nasturtium.

I’ve never had enough watercress to cook – I just eat a few leaves plain, or pick some to put on bread and butter – it’s classic. But some people like watercress soup, or watercress salad.

People get a little cultlike around watercress. There’s even a site dedicated solely to it. For those of you who have enough watercress to cook, watercress.com (the link will take you to the recipes page) offers suggestions on pasta soup, quiche, baked eggs, and a number of dishes so delicious-sounding that I may have to go and find a bigger patch of watercress…


First Signs of Life

Chinese New Year. Lunar new year. Groundhog Day. Imbolc. Candlemas. St. Brigid’s day. Whatever the name, it’s about the first signs of new life.

This year, we had an auspicious meeting of lunar and solar holidays. The lunar holiday is the Chinese new year; the Chinese keep the old system of a lunar year with 13 months, so they don’t wind up with extra bits of day in the year, the way the Gregorian system does. So the Chinese new year is the lunar new year.

Plants for this holiday are, most famously, citrus, especially oranges, because of their round golden-orangeness: this is symbolic of money (pieces of gold), as well as sweetness and other kinds of prosperity.

The Gardening with Wilson site also lists that strange citrus known as “Buddha’s hand” as a lunar new year plant. He says they aren’t for eating, but they are fragrant and symbolize good luck, abundant wealth, and longevity. The only Buddha’s hand I’ve seen was in a public greenhouse, so I wasn’t able to test out the fragrance, but I love the looks.  The show-what-it-looks-like photo is at the top of this post, but I loved this view:

That citrus is in season around this time is, I’m sure, another reason they’re associated with the lunar new year. And, when you think about it, this really is an ancient sign of long life and prosperity: fruit in season. In a time when commercial sugar was not easily available, the sweet treats of citrus must have opened new dimensions of abundance and pleasure.

The solar holidays are Groundhog Day, Imbolc, and Candlemas – markers of the seasonal calendar in the northern hemisphere. While they have different names and backgrounds, these holidays are really all about the same thing: the return of life.They’re at the midpoint between winter solstice and spring equinox, a time when gardeners itch to get outside or begin sowing cool-weather plants, depending on the climate.

David Beaulieu points out that Groundhog Day is the only holiday solely devoted to the weather. I always have to look up whether spring comes sooner if the groundhog sees the shadow, or if it doesn’t. According to Beaulieu, spring comes early when the groundhog doesn’t spot a shadow, and this year was a shadowless year. The geese already flying over, and the buttercup leaves that have unfolded in protected spots in the warm spell are other predictors, but as usual, time will tell best.

Candlemas is basically a Christianized version of Imbolc, an ancient Celtic holiday, as is Brigid’s Day. Brigid was one of those goddesses they tried to tame by making her into a saint.

Candlemas day is another weather predictor. Lindy Washburn says that the basic idea is the same as for Groundhog Day, but couched more poetically. “If Candlemas Day is bright and clear, there’ll be two winters in the year.” In New Jersey, it was clear, unlike in Philadelphia where the Official Recording Groundhog resides. Will the weather be different in New Jersey and Philadelphia? What about the rest of us?

Historically, Candlemas was the day on which candles were blessed. That may seem strange to some now, but in a time when your ability to see, work, and even walk at night depended on candles, candles were important. Most people made candles in winter, when there was time off from farm work and fires were going all the time anyway.

Candlemas plants would then be all flowers (since beeswax is one of the traditional waxes) and the bayberry bush, which white settlers in New England made into candles. It takes a lot of berries – a whole lot of berries – to do that, so those colonists spent a lot of time in the bayberry bushes and surely must have associated them with the blessing of the candles. The major “plant” for Candlemas would have to be a cow, though, since most people used the less-expensive and less labor-intensive tallow for their candles. These days, I guess Candlemass plants would be fossilized plants that have become the petroleum which we now use for candles.

Another beeswax contributor

Brigid’s Day is also called Imbolc, the older Gaelic name (it’s not pronounced the way you’d think, but don’t ask me to give you the right pronunciation). Imbolc means “in the belly” and referred to the fact that, in the UK, this is the very beginning of lambing season.

Sheep were the source of food and warmth (in the form of wool). They were hugely important in Celitc agriculture. This is probably where our Groundhog Day tradition came from: the story is that on this day the old Cailleach goes out and looks for firewood. (The Cailleach is an ancient female spirit, who may sometimes be Brigid in one of her guises.) If the day is bright and sunny, it means she has a lot of time for gathering firewood – which means winter will last longer. If it’s cloudy, spring will come soon.

In a way, all plants are associated with this day, as Brigid is goddess (excuse me, I mean saint) of fertility, creativity, healing, and poetry, and is associated with fire (such as the returning flame of the sun). In Ireland, as in my area, grass often starts to spring up about this time.

Traditionally, last year’s wheat stalks were woven into an image of Brigid to celebrate this day; she was dressed and laid in a basket. The symbology of planting a seed is clear.

An extension of this tradition brings us some of the same symbology  as for the Chinese New Year: in many places, this is called Pancake Day. Gingerbread snowflakes points out that golden, round pancakes represent the sun. By this time, it’s easy to tell it’s staying light later and earlier. And the inclusion of last year’s harvest seems like a natural form of priming the pump for the coming year.

And, I realize, those mandarin oranges that are so popular for Chinese New Year gifts must do the same thing – along with representing money. Because the deepest source of human wealth is returning plant growth. Everything we do depends on it, now as in ancient times.




It’s one of the things we take for granted, in the gardening world, unless we’re in the tropics. Maybe even in the tropics there is dormancy that reveals itself to a knowing eye.

But when you think about it, dormancy is miraculous. Something dies, and we expect it to rise again. Have you ever considered  what it is involved in taking that for granted? Maybe that’s why gardeners are more trusting in nature than the general population.

In an annual, dormancy has an aspect of transfiguraiton: the plant starts from a small  hard grain,

amazingly sprouts a soft green substance many times its original size,

and then, against all reason, continues to get bigger and create yet another variation: a flower.

And if that flower gets pollinated – and it has all sorts of tricks to make sure that happens – its soft, flimsy zygotes undergo a change, a change that brings them back to that hard little grain that started it all.

Although it is kind of a chicken and egg question, whether the seed is the start of things, or whether, in some dimension of time, a plant just had a mad whim to flower and fruit, instead of going on the same old way, like algae, dividing cells and dividing cells.

Bruce Lipton, the renegade cell biologist from Stanford, says that when cell conglomerations get large, they can choose to make communities, where some cells have special functions. Our own bodies are cooperative communities of trillions of cells.

Plants are also cooperative communities. Having had the privilege of seeing mitosis under a microscope – my mind got expanded to an airy thinness in that tiny field.  Mitosis is when cells divide, and also where they arrange themselves to take on certain work. The cells in plants, like our own cells, agreed to split up the tasks. (“OK: I’ll make a leaf bud. And I’ll mostly do photosynthesis, but I’ll do a couple of other things on the side. I like variety.”)

One thing cells do, Bruce Lipton says (and this is why he’s a renegade, though no one has been able to scientifically refute him) – one thing cells do is they respond to the environment. In fact, our own cells respond to environment, not to our DNA as the textbooks have it. DNA is just a kind of architect’s plan; we can change the plans by changing our environment: by chemistry, sound, feeling, temperature, and probably many other signals that we’re not even aware of.

Plant-cell communities also responded to their environment. At some point, they must have decided to be flexible, to roll with it, to go with the seasons. They could have decided, on the basis of winter, “Well, better keep hard and small and protected, the world’s obviously a hostile place for growth.”

And, in a sense, they did. For a time, they did decide that. But they also decided to respond to the expanding warmth of spring, when it came along.  And to the long days of summer. They kept their options flexible. Annuals allowed hard impermeability to last only for the season where it serves a purpose. They turned what might have been a killing hardship into an extravagant magical display: now you see it, now you don’t.

And perennials, those plants that get ever dearer to gardener’s hearts as we go along in life. perennials decided to shed their fluffed-out leaves and honey-scented blossoms (or even their tiny leaves and scentless unnoticeable flowers). They cast off all softness and extravagance – so they can get bigger next year, and create even more lush fertility, more and more every year.


Flowers in the Snow


  The point of putting evergreens around, this time of year, is to remind us of spring to come: that the snow and dark may put us into temporary dormancy, but life will renew itself. 

In more modern times, since we’ve had heated houses, greenhouses, and fast transportation, we’ve dreamed up more elaborate ways of showing ourselves that there is hope  of more expansive days to come: if we have enough money, we can pretty much have any flower we want, in any season. 

But hothouse flowers, while lush and beautiful, don’t give me the refreshment I get from those simple plants whose ancestors have been providing that little adrenaline rush to people for millenia. 

A lot of those flowers that last through snowy weather are bulbs, so of course I’m going to write about them. But the violets at the top of the page not only lasted through snow, but went on to bloom for weeks more (I’m pretty sure they’re a sport of an old variety I dug up at a friend’s house). And one of those durable bulbs I was so hopeful about, Fritillaria persica, looked as if it was doing well in the snow


but future events showed differently. I was so disappointed. I have never gotten Fritillaria persica to flower yet.


 On the other hand, some bulbs are designed for snow, as this daffodil (an anonymous daffodil from a big cheap bag at my hardward store, probably the ubiquitous ‘Dutch Master’).



 While this modern daffodil is bigger than its ancestors, they share the deep tube that keeps its sexual parts safe and sheltered – so, should a pollinator be abroad on a snowy day, it will find shelter. You can see that even though this daffodil is tattered by weather, once the pollination has been carried out, the seeds can still develop in their cozy (relatively) little incubator-trumpet. 


These small Tulipa turkestanica are another plant that was made to take the snow. They come from the high mountain passes of  the Turkestan mountains, in Central Asia. I suspect, as in my own mountains, they get sudden dumps of spring snow.


  One of the big problems with those spring frosts and snows is that they kill fruit tree flowers at a crucial time (fruit trees don’t have those nice protected pollinating spots that daffodils do; too bad). This flowering plum (which gives excellent, red, cherry-size plums in season) looks happy here. But we had snow after this picture was taken, and all our fruit was really expensive, because there wasn’t much of it.



 You can always count on crocus, though, which originated in the same high mountains as Tulipa turkestanica.



 Like the ‘Gypsy Girl’ crocus,  this iris x histrioides ‘Katherine Hodgkins’  might be unrecognizable to its ancestors, but it still keeps its resilience to snow. 


 I’d be curious to know of other people’s favorite plants that flower in snow. 



Joseph Breck and His Flowers: Time Changes, Gardening Doesn’t



Surely Breck enjoyed the fan-play of hyacinth foliage…


They don’t write books like they used to.

  “Let us learn another lesson from the lily of the field. How small a portion of its exquisite beauty is within the reach of our vision. Look with a true heart and a loving spirit, study its wondrous mechanism, its faultless form, seek for the secret of its ‘tender grace,’ and when you have read all that eye can see, and have felt all that heart can receive, remember that you know but in part, that you see the beauty of this flower only through a glass darkly. It has a wealth of beauty that to you is entirely imperceptible.” 


…and the first violets poking through snow and leaves 

 That’s from Breck’s New Book of Flowers, written in 1866, when Joseph Breck was 70.  Not only does he take some pages to discuss the spiritual value of flowers, he takes even more to describe how every child will benefit from growing flowers, and how, for a person in declining years, gardening is the perfect exercise.

He goes on to paint a portrait of his dead mother:  how she grew, gathered, and had flowers around the house. “With tender emotions do I remember the old white rose-bush, trained up to the top of the house by the hand of a dear mother, the abundant and fragrant flowers of which gave delight to all the household as well as to the neighbors, who received them as expresions of neighborly friendship and good-will.” (If you’d like to read the full text, you can find it at google books.


As the founder of one of our most famous U.S. bulb catalogues, Breck must have enjoyed the unfurling of a tulip bud as much as I (although the bud, and the tulip, would have been smaller than this one)



While no one would write in such a florid style now, many gardening books and articles include childhood garden inspirations, and descriptions of the generous spirit plants often seem to nurture in gardeners. (I can’t help wondering what that fragrant white rose would have been, though. Perhaps a white damask of some type? Or maybe it was an alba, which would be appropriate.)


 What interests me is that, these days, the memoir and the paeon to the joys of plants would probably not be in a book of practical instruction. Or at least it wouldn’t take the first few chapters, and be interlarded with the practical instruction that followed. I’m not sure this means we’ve gone forward in the world of garden writing; I think it’s more a case of pressing forward in the world of book marketing.


The incredibly fragrant ‘Painted Lady’ sweet pea was known in England in the late 1700s, so Breck would have been familiar with it 


  And, speaking of marketing, by the time Breck was writing, he was living in the same breathless pace of plant fashion we know today. “Time makes great changes in all the pursuits of life, and in none more than it has in Floriculture in the last 15 years..” he says, giving the reason why he’s writing the new edition, and not even bothering to amend his old flower book. Which is to say a lot of new plants had come into style, and a lot of old ones had been relegated to the back of the catalogue, or been cut out of it entirely. 

“There is a fashion among amateurs of the floral kingdom…thus, when  new flower of fancied merit is introduced, it becomes all the rage, for the time being,” Breck writes knowingly. 


Species nicotiana were popular Victorian flowers. The species names were different, though. The Nicotiana longiflora in Breck’s book is probably N. sylvestris. The flower above is N. alata. 


Ignorance is another gardening trait which hasn’t changed over the years. In the section where he discusses seed vitality, Breck tells a story about a Maine farmer who sent him a potato which, he insisted, had grown on the roots of a Gilly-Flower (carnation, or pink; it’s a corruption of “July-flower”). Breck feels called upon to tell this story because, despite all Breck’s careful explanations, the farmer was firmly convinced that a potato could be bred with a Gilly-flower, and he wouldn’t budge from his story.  (Of course these days that farmer could breed a potato with a fish, if he were talented at genetics.)

  Are there still people out there who believe a potato could grow from carnation roots? Well, judging by the ads for Giant Tomato Trees and Giant Bluberries, which I’ve been seeing for the last 20 years, credulity still seems to be a part of horticultural life.

  And judging by location-establishing shots that have roses blooming all year round in Washington, D.C.  (a popular TV show which shall remain nameless), we are probably no better educated than Breck’s farmer audiences. Possibly less: most of us don’t have the daily experience of nature and its vagaries firshand. 

  Really, gardener’s concerns don’t seem to have changed much since 1866. Neither have our human concerns. After pointing out that Floriculture demanded he do the rewrite, Joseph Breck noted, “…the book in question had become antiquated like the author, and needed revision, which I hope he does not, extensively.”   


The double ‘Chestnut Flower’ hyacinth is really past Breck’s time: it came out in 1880,  fourteen years after his revised book