And now the cherries…

This morning, after yesterday’s rainstorm, the cherry trees have come into their own.

Two days ago they were gray branches on gray trunks, but now they are mists of palest pink, proudly decorating the streets of Gaithersburg.

This is cherryblossom country. The century-old Japanese cherries down at DC’s Tidal Basin are a famous sight, worth seeing by day and magical in the moonlight. But those famous blossoms receive mobs of visitors, and it can be a hassle to get there.

The early Yoshino cherries on Professional Drive in Gaithersburg, and the ones at the Asbury Methodist retirement community, and scattered along streets around town, are gorgeous enough for me, without the attendant crowds and traffic.

One of the loveliest displays of blooming cherry trees that I’ve ever enjoyed was in Branch Brook Park in Newark, NJ. Years ago my Estonian-American friend Kati invited me and several others to a chilly picnic in the park when the trees were in full bloom. We shivered in our winter coats, but it was breathtaking to sit among the flowering beauty.

Even our redbuds are bursting forth, I noticed today. They are relatives of our common peas and beans and clovers, members of the legume family.

Redbuds are so vivid and surprising to see in the faintly greening woodlands. Personally, I like to think of them as the kisses of the Goddess on the awakening land.

And the cherry blossoms are Her dreams made manifest.

Almost heaven

It is the middle of March, an unusually warm March in Central Maryland, and  everywhere  there are white and palest pink clouds of blossom. The Bradford pears, both the tame and the wild, are in full white bloom (the pink trees are cherries). They are gorgeous, and if there is a heaven, I picture it filled with these blossoming trees and daffodils and violets  and new green grass.

At our old house, there was a great beauty of a Bradford in the front yard, one of many that lined the neighborhood streets and created an ethereal glory around us for a week or two every spring.  It was a perfect tree for climbing, and my daughters quickly learned to scurry up and hide in it like squirrels.  One of my favorite memories is of Tara around age 11, perched among the blossoming branches on a sunny afternoon, reading a book.

This particular Bradford was so large that it almost concealed the house; unusual because this particular variety of ornamental pear is short-lived.  The branches are easily broken in storms or heavy winds, which is one reason they fell out of favor as street trees.

Introduced  from its native China and Korea to the U.S. in 1916, Pyrus calleryana, the botanical name for the Bradford pear, was promoted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture beginning in 1963 for its lovely pyramidal form, two-week spring blossoming period and beautiful fall colors. In our area it is one of the first trees to bloom, preceded only by the stellar magnolia and its pink cousins.

And when almost every other deciduous  tree has lost its leaves,  the Bradford’s tough leaves turn every shade of crimson, gold, flame, orange, maroon and even purple, in a spectacular show that often lasts until Thanksgiving.

Bradfords gone wild

Alas, the Bradford has several flaws: the aforementioned tendency to split apart in heavy winds and snow, its growth of pesky suckers from the base of the trunk, and the unpleasant smell  of the flowers.

And there is one more. It’s gone wild.  Birds eat the tiny brown fruits, and spread the seed everywhere they go.  Declared an invasive species in many states and communities, they nevertheless put on a pretty show when they bloom.

As I drive along sections of I-370 and I-270 this week, I see the sides of the roads decorated with dozens upon dozens of wild Bradfords, rising like ghosts from the terrain.  One section of Route 355 just south of Shady Grove Road used to be lined with stately rows of them. Inevitably, they fell prey to the weather, but their descendants now fill the entire field behind Route 355.

“Take Me Home, Country Roads” is about Maryland

Sights like this bring to mind a song that the late John Denver popularized in the early 1970s, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. I’ll start humming “Almost heaven…” as I drive past the flowering madness, and then realize once again that this song was not originally about West  Virginia, but a road right here in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Back in 1970, I’m told, Gaithersburg was “nothing but cows,” according to a former colleague at the Newark Star-Ledger newspaper who hailed from Bethesda, MD.  Through this wilderness, musicians Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert  were headed to a family reunion of the latter’s relatives. During the drive, Danoff started making up a ballad about the winding country roads, specifically thinking of Clopper Road, which heads west from Gaithersburg to Germantown and Boyds.  Because they couldn’t think of a way to rhyme Maryland,  the song’s setting was changed to West Virginia.

In December, 1970, Danoff and Nivert, performing as the duo Fat City, opened for Denver at the Cellar Door in Washington DC.  Afterward they sang the road song for Denver, and the three of them stayed up all night rewriting it. They performed the song for the first time on December 30, 1970 at the Cellar Door, to a long standing ovation, then recorded it in New York City the following month.  It appeared on the LP Poems, Prayers and Promises, and the single of the song sold a million copies by August 1971.

“Take Me Home, Country Roads” often pops into my head unexpectedly when I’m on Clopper Road, particularly where it runs alongside  Great Seneca Park. Maybe the song really belongs to the road, even though the area has changed greatly over four decades.  And it’s so true. In springtime, this part of Maryland, suburbs and all, still looks almost like heaven.

Bye bye, Bradford

Our old Bradford pear tree succumbed to storms a few years after we  relocated to a nearby neighborhood, but members of my family will drive through the old streets to see the other pear trees in bloom.

The house we moved to in 1998 doesn’t have a Bradford pear, though it boasts two gigantic silver maples that give good shade in the back yard, but drive us crazy with their big roots that push through the lawn and into the vegetable garden.  Over the years we’ve planted a couple of kousa dogwoods, because the native dogwood, cornus florida, is falling victim to disease, and a hybrid Stellar dogwood developed by my alma mater, Rutgers University.

We’ve also put in a river birch with its odd peeling bark, a pair of hybrid America-Chinese chestnuts,  a red maple, and a Sargent crabapple. But my favorite is the Cleveland pear, a variant of the Bradford that has a stronger branch structure and good resistance to various blights.  It’s a taller, skinnier version of the Bradford, and this year it has really begun to look mature and beautiful in bloom.

And it has one more feature that I like: its blossoms don’t smell nearly as unpleasant as a Bradford’s.

It’s almost heaven in Maryland as spring begins today, but all this beauty is fleeting. In another week the green leaves will show through the white blossoms, and other ornamental trees and shrubs will bloom in their allotted times or sooner, if this warm weather persists.

There will be crabapples, and Kwanzan cherries that fill some neighborhoods in Rockville with their pink powderpuffs, and scatter pink snow on sidewalks and lawns. The native  dogwoods, though fewer in number,  will put on their lacy show, and redbuds will burst with vivid lavender-pink. Then come the azaleas in every lipstick shade there is, followed by their sisters the rhododendrons, and finally the kousa dogwoods looking like snow in summer, pointed white petals piled over green leaves.

Then comes summer, and roses.

I wonder, though, whether we would go crazy over these white and pink spring trees if they stayed that way for half the year.  Would we eventually get weary of the blossoms and long for the sight of cool green leaves, or the color explosions of autumn? Would I really enjoy a heaven perpetually in the bloom of spring, or would I yearn for roses and tomatoes?  Or for the bare grey branches sparkling with ice and snow, and no sidewalks to shovel?

Would you?

The Empire of the Brassicaceae strikes back

I was cutting up a couple of broccoli crowns this evening, and my dog Penny was lurking at my feet, expecting to be tossed several green florets, as is her due. She and her canine partner-in-crime Bailey are veggie-loving dogs. They’ll happily devour not just broccoli, but also baby carrots, zucchini slices, pieces of cauliflower, raw and cooked green beans, peas, sweet potato fries, cucumber chunks, and more.

But my mind was on half a dozen different things, and the knife slipped, and cut my thumb. That should remind me to practice mindfulness next time I slay a broccoli, but I’ll forget. Anyway, it was probably karmic payback for all the destruction I wrought earlier in the day on the broccoli’s distant relatives, the hairy bittercress infesting the yard.

Bittercress, also known as cardamine, is a member of the vast empire of the cabbage family, which includes broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, mustard, radishes, turnips, watercress , beets, chard and many more. I like many of them, but the hairy bittercress is something else altogether.

Know thine enemy

Most people don’t notice bittercress, unless they happen to be gardeners or lawn fanatics. It’s a small, unobtrusive-looking plant, with a central stem (or two, or four, or a dozen) rising from a rosette of basal leaves that are usually a dull green, sometimes dark purple. These stems are topped by tiny white four-petaled flowers smaller than peppercorns, and they are the first things to bloom in late winter, long before the snowdrops and crocuses have risen from the thawing earth. These tiny flowers quickly go to seed, forming brown pods less than a centimeter long. And when something touches them, they explode and scatter seeds all over the place. Try to weed them out, and they spit seeds defiantly the moment you touch them.

No matter how many of the dratted things I yank out, more appear, seemingly out of nowhere. I swear they send out secret signals alerting every other bittercress within a given distance to send up more stems and start flowering like mad. As though there were some sort of sinister sentience among them, with but a single goal: to take over the garden, then the lawn, the neighborhood and ultimately the entire world, mwa-ha-ha-ha!

Edible?

I didn’t know until I looked cardamine up in Wikipedia today that some even consider the wretched weed edible. No, thank you! My Euell Gibbons days of stalking edible wild plants are over.

I can still point out various things in the back yard and tell someone whether they can be eaten, and some day when civilization as we know it collapses, this knowledge may come in handy. But my ventures into weed cuisine have generally not been worth the effort.

Except perhaps  for that time in the 1970s when I proved to my co-workers that I could make lunch from the weeds in the parking lot. That was back when I worked at the Somerset Messenger-Gazette, a large weekly paper serving Somerset County, N.J., now defunct like most of the newspapers for which I’ve worked. (And it wasn’t my fault they died, honest.) But I digress, as usual.

Parking lot lunch

Armed with a skillet, knife, an egg, cooking oil, bread crumbs and a few other items, I went to work on the stems of some plant that grew in the lot. Cardoon, I think. I battered and fried them, and I have to admit they tasted slightly of motor oil from the cars. None of the folks in the editorial department dared to sample them, but the looks on their faces were priceless. They kept eyeing me all afternoon to see if I would suddenly collapse, frothing at the mouth, but they were sorely disappointed.

Doll’s

I’d far rather cook and eat pasta broccoli the way they used to make it at Doll’s Restaurant in New Brunswick, NJ, seasoned with fennel seeds, garlic and red pepper flakes. This is my comfort food, and I made it tonight for my 60th birthday dinner. We’ll go out for the vegetarian buffet at our favorite Indian place this weekend, but tonight I wanted pasta broccoli.

Broccoli is kind of a funny thing with me. I don’t believe I tasted fresh broccoli, cooked or raw, until my late teens, and it was love at first taste. My mother started using the dismal frozen stuff at some point, but like other Estonians, she was unfamiliar with broccoli when I was a kid. It didn’t grow there — too cold or something. There wasn’t even a word for it in Estonian, unlike cauliflower, which they call lillekapsas – flower cabbage.

Regular cabbage, one of the staple foods of Estonia, is called kapsas, a word derived from the Russian kapusta, which ultimately comes from the Latin word for head, caput.

Ah, sauerkraut

Estonians raise and cook cabbage in many ways, but their favorite dish is sauerkraut. They call it hapukapsas. It’s sometimes prepared with barley, and is sweeter than the stuff Americans pile on their hot dogs, because we rinse the pickled cabbage thoroughly before cooking. My mom made great sauerkraut, but I’m afraid I didn’t appreciate it when I was young; I refused to eat it.

Today I rarely prepare sauerkraut, and when I do, it never comes out like hers. My brother’s version is wonderful. If I get up to New Jersey during the summer when there’s some big bash going on at the Lakewood Estonian House, I always get a bowl of the wonderful hot sauerkraut soup they sell in the kitchen. It’s unbeatable, even on a simmering August night when it’s 90 degrees outside..

Now that Estonia is independent, they have access to many more foods and cuisines than they did in the Soviet era. And I see that they have finally gotten into broccoli and given it an Estonian name: brokoli. Nice and simple. I found the word in a recipe book brought home from my last visit there.

Do they know it’s brokoli?

I wonder what, if anything, Estonians call broccoli rabe, also known as rapini, the vegetable that heralds spring in the supermarkets? Do they even know what it is? It’s actually more closely related to turnips than to broccoli.

I was introduced to this deliciously bitter green by my first mother-in-law, who was Italian. She rinsed it off, cut out the toughest stems, and steamed it slowly in a covered pan with only the water that clung to the leaves. The stuff was amazing; after eating it you could feel the vitamins coursing through the veins. Green Geritol, if you will.

And I’ll definitely need that green energy to tackle the rapidly advancing hordes of hairy bittercress that are silently marching across the lawn, even as we sleep,  preparing to conquer us all.