A rose in the wintertime

“… and I’ll bring you hope, when hope is hard to find.

And I’ll bring a song of love, and a rose in the wintertime.”

— from “Come Sing a Song with Me”, Unitarian Universalist hymn by Carolyn McDade, 1976

We sang this hymn at Sunday service today. It’s a favorite of mine, so fitting at this time of year, when the plants around us are dead, or dying, or curled up in winter sleep. Everything looks dead. The days are short, and frequently dark and cloudy. The sunlight that reaches us is thin and weak, like watery tea. It’s not enough to charge our internal solar-powered batteries — at least not mine. I don’t think I could stand winter in Estonia, where the sun comes up around 9 a.m. and vanishes by 3 p.m. at this time of year.

It’s awfully hard to feel hope at this time of year. Too many people are suffering. The world is full of those who are sick, starving, poor; those fleeing from wars, droughts, famine, climate changes  and other terrors. We may not witness these struggles personally, but they eat into our consciousness. We write checks, donate bags of food, buy mittens and scarves for the needy, give what we can.

What we do is just a drop in the bucket of the globe’s desperate needs, just as setting up a single rain barrel is only a miniscule contribution toward reversing the drastic changes in our planet’s climate. It is the willingness to make the gesture, and making it, that counts. It helps point a neighbor down the same path, and eventually leads to more meaningful awareness and change in the community. Or at least one hopes that it does.

And then there’s the loss of one’s personal sense of hope in this cold season. For me, it’s the effect of more than four years without a job, or sufficient freelance writing  work. I see people unable to find work after age 50, or 55. At 60, I’ve just about lost all hope of ever earning a paycheck again.  My work for many years was writing for newspapers, and then for small magazines and web sites devoted to the use of natural gas for saving energy.  Cogeneration, waste heat recapture, fuel  cells, desiccant dehumidification — these were components of my work vocabulary. I’m not good at other things, and I can’t stand on these arthritic  knees long enough to work at a grocery store where cashiers  stand all day.  Add seasonal affective disorder, SAD, to this mix, and I get a powerful urge to burrow underground and spend the next three months in hibernation.

Winter holidays

People struggling with the cold and darkness turn to our winter holidays, our solstice, our Christmas, our Hanukkah, for whatever cheering up they provide.  The bright lights may affect our retinas and boost the production of mood-lifting hormones in our bodies. Cookies and eggnog supply the carbohydrates we crave. Those who find winter holidays comforting and cheering are very fortunate, because in some cases the holiday season makes people sadder. Those who are alone, those who are ill, those who are far from loved ones, or homeless, or friendless or penniless, may suffer more, especially when they compare their current situation to holidays past.

I have mixed feelings about holidays past. I was raised in the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, which was sometimes pretty effective at teaching guilt. One didn’t deserve Christmas unless one did certain things like being good, helping one’s parents, doing chores.  Another thing we needed to do was to memorize Christmas poems and recite them at the local Estonian community’s yearly Christmas party.

Now, I am a shy person by nature, like author and radio star Garrison Keillor, another ex-Lutheran. It went against everything in my nature to stand up in front of all those forbidding old Estonians and our pastor, and to speak aloud.  But Estonian kids are expected to recite.

I was tongue-tied. I forgot everything. I raced back to my seat, face red, mortified. It didn’t help that my mother scolded me a great deal after those Christmas parties. Why, oh why couldn’t I just stand up and recite like all the other children?  Did I really expect anything from Jõuluvana (Old Yule, aka Santa Claus) after my pitiful performance?  I deserved a bundle of birch branches, the better to beat me with.  (Birch branches were what Jõuluvana delivered, instead of lumps of coal,  to naughty Estonian children.) But  Jõuluvana was merciful to me in spite of everything.

It wasn’t as though reciting in Estonian was the problem. I had the same problem in English.  There was a fourth-grade play in which my only line was “A dish! A dish for the king!”  Naturally, I blew it.

Those holiday parties were supposed to be fun. They were torment for me, year after year, from the time I was 4 years old. I was very glad when I was old enough to be excused from them. When I was a little older, I tried to redeem myself by making cookies for the Christmas Eve service, but it wasn’t the same at all.

Estonian Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve service at the little church in Paterson was my favorite part of the entire holiday season. Like many Lutheran churches, it was fairly plain inside. White walls, dark pews and altar, simple crucifix.  When the place was decorated with evergreen branches and lit with white candles, and filled with the sound of familiar Christmas carols, and with the pastor reading the story of Christ’s birth in his resonant voice, it took on a magic all its own. We were redeemed, even though we  might not be deserving of it.

After the service, we stood outside in the frosty air, greeting friends, and looking for the first star, which signaled that Christmas had arrived.  Then we drove home for the traditional dinner of roast pork, potatoes, sauerkraut and blood sausage. The year I found out what blood sausage was made from, was the year I stopped eating it.  After dinner, we opened the presents that Jõuluvana left while we were singing in church.

One of the hymns we always sang on Christmas Eve (which IS the holiday for Estonians, not Christmas Day) was “Üks Roosike on Tõusnud,” known in the original German as “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen,” and in one English translation as “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming.” The Estonian name means “One little rose has arisen.” It was one of the ones I liked best, and perhaps explains my fondness for the Unitarian Universalist hymn mentioned above.  I love roses. This is not the time of year for roses, and so the image of a rose blooming in winter seems almost miraculous to those of us living in the northern temperate zone.

Inventory of the garden

The other day I did a little inventory of our dead and dying garden. I found a solitary dandelion blooming close to the ground. Two small stems of hyssop, with tiny flowers of a vivid bluish purple.  A couple of star-like blue periwinkle flowers.  And then I turned the corner, and saw the Cape Cod rose. It bravely displayed a few pale pink, five-petaled roses among its thorns and scarlet hips.  Cape Cod is a tough rose, and it has a long season of blooming, though the flowers are small and modest.

Nearby stands the camellia shrub I planted several years ago, full  of  gorgeous rose-pink  blossoms. This is the first autumn it has bloomed extensively — last fall it produced one small flower.  The pine needles I mulched it with over the past year seem to have given the shrub just what it needed to flourish.  It is a fairly hardy variety chosen for our Maryland climate. Camellias thrive in the South, but are relatively unknown in northern states because most varieties can’t tolerate frost.  The one I planted, oddly enough, is called Cape Cod, like the rosebush.

A few things still manage to bloom on cold, dark days in the final weeks of fall. I want to take them as a sign of hope, and not as a sign of climate change.  Soon enough there will be a brief January thaw, and a few daffodils will poke their green noses out of the half-frozen ground, another sign of better days to come.

Lynn, our minister, said in her sermon today that prayer helps when one feels hopeless, prayer spoken or silent, directed to a deity, or to nature, or to the web of life that connects us all, or to the silence within.

Hope is a green thing. It doesn’t matter whether one deserves it or not. It grows deep where you can’t see it, but given the opportunity, it rises again.

Tomato sandwiches

Sept. 1, 2012 – This is the time of year when we’re usually deluged with ripening tomatoes from the garden. To my mind, there are few things better to make with this crimson bounty than tomato sandwiches. And thinking about tomato sandwiches reminds me of days at the Estonian Children’s Summer Camp in Long Island, where I first learned to make and eat them back in the early 1960s.

I have to give credit to the women who toiled in the camp kitchen, turning out three meals a day on a limited budget augmented by U.S. Department of Agriculture surplus foods such as powdered eggs and oatmeal. They tried to do their best with what they had to work with, in a sweltering kitchen in the middle of July. Usually the food was plain but good. But once in a while they would produce a dish like the dreaded baked eggs and macaroni casserole, made with flavorless USDA surplus powdered eggs, the top crust hard as rocks. This was a dish that could only be choked down with vast amounts of salt and catsup, if at all. I couldn’t bring myself to eat it even with catsup, although some of the other kids seemed to accept it. My brother usually made a mess of half catsup, half egg casserole, and devoured it without a problem.

Having been raised by parents who often went without food in a post-war refugee camp in Germany, I was lectured endlessly at home about not wasting food, cleaning your plate, and so on. My conscience didn’t dare accept a serving of the eggs-and-mac, only to leave it uneaten. On the other hand, I did want something for supper.

Alternatives to the dreaded eggs-and-macaroni casserole

At lunch and dinner, the long tables at camp were usually set with plates of sliced tomatoes and/or cucumbers, as well as small baskets of bread slices. Salt, catsup, mustard and butter were available, and sometimes jars of peanut butter and jelly as well. Sometimes, as an alternative to the main supper dish, they also set out cheese, bologna and salami slices, so there were alternatives if we didn’t like the regular meal. But on those lean days when eggs-and-mac appeared without cold cuts or peanut butter, we carefully buttered our bread and topped it with three or four tomato slices and dined on those.

I was an impatient kid and slapped on the butter any which way. My friend Rita, however, meticulously spread her butter evenly over every bit of the bread. I was usually finished by the time Rita was ready to take her perfect first bite. (This probably explains why Rita had a stellar career as a government banking official in Estonia when it regained its freedom, and why I’ve struggled to find work as a freelance writer since my journalism career came to a close 15 years ago.)

And once in a long while, when there weren’t tomatoes or cucumbers on the table, we made catsup sandwiches instead.

I love Bosco

In the morning, the kitchen ladies often served hot cooked oatmeal or farina. Some unsung genius among the campers developed the trick of stirring lots and lots of Bosco chocolate syrup into the farina to make it palatable. This bit of camp wisdom was passed down from camper to younger camper over the years. Bosco didn’t mix as nicely with the oatmeal, which we usually drowned in milk and sugar. Many of us who were kids in the early 1960s fondly remember Bosco and its rival product, Cocoa Marsh, which made drinking milk so much more enjoyable. I wonder when they disappeared from the stores.

Some little monster, at camp or elsewhere, came up with a parody of the Bosco TV jingle, “I Love Bosco”. It went:

I hate Bosco, Bosco’s bad for me.
Mommy put it in my milk to try and poison me.
I fooled Mommy. I put in in her tea.
No more Mommy, to try and poison me.

Every day a couple of campers were chosen for KP, which meant setting the tables for all three meals, clearing them afterward, washing down the tables, scraping leftovers into a slop bucket, and lugging that smelly bucket out to the woods to the solgi auk (slop hole) for disposal. This was a pit dug in the sandy soil, and covered over at the end of the camp season. One of the neat things about going to the solgi auk was the chance to spot frogs and other wildlife attracted to the food scraps. One of the not-so-nice things, at least to us girls, was the chance of encountering a snake attracted to the wildlife.

One year at camp, some of us felt duty-bound to made life harder for the kids whose turn it was at KP, particularly if we didn’t happen to like one or more of them. We made mini-slops. Someone would leave something on their plate and pass it to the next kid, who would add something else, and so on. The idea was to be as creative as possible. A really good slop would have a liberal assortment of potato pieces, Bosco syrup, cucumber slices, catsup, bread, milk, mustard, jelly and whatever else happened to be served at that meal. It was left at the table as a special “treat” for the hapless kids on KP to deal with.

Trust me, being on the receiving like of a slop was not fun, but there are worse things in the world.

And one of the best things in the world is spreading “real” mayonnaise, the light version, on a slice of good bread, and topping it with dripping fresh sliced tomatoes from your own back yard. A little salt, a little pepper. One bite, and you’re in Tomato Paradise. I can hardly wait for next summer’s tomato season already.

NOTE: This was supposed to be posted on Sept. 1, not in late October.

May daylilies

It looks and feels like July in Central Maryland, but it’s only the beginning of June.  Not surprisingly, this year’s unusually early spring has given way to an early summer.

A lot of things are blooming far earlier than what I used to consider normal. The semi-wild orange daylilies have been blooming for a couple of weeks, as have the hybridized  Stella D’oro daylilies. Deer come in the early, early morning hours to nibble the tender daylily buds.

Euell Gibbons, the late author of “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” and promoter of eating food found in the wild, was a big fan of daylily buds, and wrote of dipping them in batter and frying them. Back in my hippie days in the 1970s, I experimented  with gathering and cooking wild plants, using his books as a guide. Among many other wild foods, I tried daylily buds, but they weren’t anything special as far as I recall.

Daylilies, called Hemerocallis from the Greek words for “day” and “beauty,”  are native to Korea, Japan and China, where the flowers and buds are consumed in dishes such as daylily soup, hot and sour soup, Mu Shu pork and Buddha’s delight.

Our familiar wild tawny daylily, Hemerocallis fulva, grows in many of our 50 states and is sometimes considered invasive and a nuisance.

Daylilies = summer

As a kid in New Jersey I always thought of daylilies as summer flowers,  raising their bright orange petals up like miniature Fourth-of-July fireworks. Daylilies  meant dusty summer roadsides, walking barefoot, stopping to catch a breath in the cool blue-green shade of fully leafed trees.  Not May flowers. There’s something odd going on when daylilies bloom in mid-May.

Daylilies in bloom spelled July and the start of Estonian summer camp on Long Island, tucked among the sandy pines and farms of Middle Island.

I started going to Eesti Laste Suvekodu (Estonian Children’s Summer Home) when I was seven, usually for a single week, sometimes two, because that’s all my parents could afford. They needed a mental health break from the perennial squabbling between my younger brother and myself. When he was old enough, he went to camp too. My parents must have celebrated their freedom.

Camp was sponsored by the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church in the U.S., and took place for six weeks in July and August every summer. We were required to speak only Estonian at camp, and to take part in Lutheran church services there every Sunday. We had morning calisthenics, swimming, sports and lessons in Estonian language, history, folk songs and folk dancing.  Though I disliked folk dancing at the time because I was usually stuck with one of the awkward boys, I can remember the dance steps and the music on the record player and the smooth tiled floor of the Suur Saal (Great Hall).

 Scavenger hunts

We put on plays, had athletic competitions, and had vast and memorable all-day team scavenger hunts, borrowing pigs or cows from neighboring farmers to score the ultimate number of points. The year I was 13, I suddenly  keeled over with pain in the middle of  an exciting scavenger hunt, and wound up having my appendix removed that night. I was upset about missing the rest of the scavenger hunt and being stuck in a New York City hospital for 10 precious days of summer. I suppose now the doctor takes the thing out and they boot you out the door the same day.

Every Saturday there was a big bonfire for campers and our visitors, and we gathered around  for an evening of songs and funny skits. I don’t remember the skits now, but I remember the sparks flying high into the night sky, the scent of wood  smoke, the joy of singing together with our faces lit by firelight.

And when the fire was dying down, came  the hypnotic closing song. We all joined hands and swayed side to side singing this lullaby:

Uni tule rutuga et magama ma jääks.
Ka kata silmad kätega, et väsimus must läeks.
Olen homme parem kui olin eile.
Olen homme parem kui olin täna.” 

(Dreams, come quickly now so I can fall asleep.
I cover my eyes with my hands, so tiredness may go away.
I will be better tomorrow than I was yesterday.
I will be better tomorrow than I was today.)

Stuff we learned at camp

I learned so many useful things at camp. During the group hike back from a North Shore beach, out of view of the counselors, a friend offered me my first lit cigarette. I was 12,  and was I ever nauseous afterward. I learned that some of our counselors  purchased beer, vodka and other amenities and sometimes shared them with older campers. I had my first kiss, and later practiced making out with various boys when I was 12 or 13, although I was known as a shy goody-goody back at school.  I learned dirty jokes and the racy lyrics to some Estonian folk songs from our counselors. And I learned to cuss gloriously in English from the New York City kids, who were way more sophisticated than their sheltered suburban counterparts.

After returning from camp one summer — I must have been 9 or 10 — I proudly demonstrated my new collection of four-letter words to the neighborhood kids, most of whom were a couple of years younger.  Their mothers promptly informed me that I should have my mouth washed out with soap, and forbade their children to play with me or my brother, because we were Bad Influences.

During camp, we  mastered practical jokes such as short-sheeting beds or hiding a harmless snake in a counselor’s bunk.  Some of us learned to run very fast after trying these things.  We older girls stayed up late at night reading romance magazines out loud, or making up scary stories about a mysterious Black Cabin said to be in the woods. One summer we terrorized the little boys with a tale about a fictitious bloodsucking moth called the Orange Mooom (with three o’s) that would one day fly into their cabin, bringing doom.

Tower of bees

Once we made a tower of bees. One morning at breakfast, kids began catching the bees that buzzed around the mess hall between plastic juice glasses. It was tricky, but we succeeded in making a nice apartment tower of nine or ten furious bees trapped in a similar number of tumblers. Too bad for the poor kids who had KP duty that day, because they had to separate the glasses and dodge the bees.

During our rare free time, I rambled around the camp property alone, looking up wildflowers in a little pocket guide. I identified orange butterfly weed, Queen Ann’s Lace, chicory and many other familiar summer flowers.  I taught my friends to peel and chew on the roots of sassafras saplings for the taste of root beer, and we were always hunting for frogs to be our pets.

Still vivid in my mind is the time one girl’s pet frog was caught and slowly swallowed by a garter snake. Ignoring Ines’s tears and pleadings to rescue the frog, one of the counselors instructed us to watch nature in action, even pointing out how the hapless creature’s front feet, the last part swallowed, were clasped as if in prayer. It was a horrible experience.

 Change comes to Estonian camp

The Long Island Estonian community still owns the campsite and hosts a number of events there, including a sports competition and summer solstice bonfire this coming weekend. Part of me is tempted to go back and see the place again, but in addition to being an awful drive, the Suvekodu has inevitably changed over the past 50-some years.  They stopped holding summer camp for a while, but then it was revived due to popular demand from a new generation of Estonian-American parents with camp memories of their own. I wonder if today’s campers manage to get away with the stuff we did. I certainly hope so.

Where there were once deep pine and oak woods and strawberry farms surrounding our camp, friends tell me it is now surrounded on all sides by suburban development. It’s no longer an isolated  island of  carefree Estonian kids in a setting of rural beauty, except in our fragile memories.

I don’t think I can bear going back and witnessing the changes there.  There’s far too much change taking place in the world, particularly all the shifts and alterations in climate patterns that are bringing us daylilies as May flowers.

Farewell, Mr. Lincoln

Mister Lincoln has passed on to his reward, wherever that might be. The loveliest, largest-flowered, most gloriously fragrant of all the roses in my garden, my absolute favorite, is no more.  In his place, as expected, blooms the hardier Dr. Huey rose, with its scented blooms formed of deep red petals and golden center eyes.

Dr. Huey is a nice rose, so tough that it is often used as the rootstock onto which more delicate varieties are grafted. But in appearance and scent, it is to Mr. Lincoln what a robin is to a male  peacock in full display.  Mr. Lincoln is a superstar hybrid tea rose, first released in 1964, designated a 1965 All-American Rose selection, with flowers as large as five or six inches in diameter. It is a wow.

We’ve had other Dr. Huey roses emerge, once when the Gold Medal grafted onto it died, and once when one of our three beautiful pink Queen Elizabeth rosebushes faded away.  Doc keeps coming up in the Queen’s old place, no matter how many times I’ve pruned it down to the roots. It’s hard to kill a Dr. Huey. In terms of toughness and determination, Dr. Huey is to Mr. Lincoln as a mockingbird is to a sickly finch.

 Mockingbirds on the prowl

It’s extremely hard to daunt a mockingbird, particularly when there is a nest of baby mockers to be defended. I’ve seen them angrily drive away crows three times their size, and hawks easily twice the size of the crows. An enraged mockingbird is all noise and flapping and pecking, a cohort of kung-fu fighters unto itself.  But when it sings, it sings sublimely.

We didn’t see these when I was growing up in New Jersey; we had noisy catbirds.  But now that we are technically below the Mason-Dixon line in Maryland, we experience the joy of mockingbirds.

Sublime is a good word to describe the garden at this time of year. The azaleas have finished their riots of color, and their sisters the rhododendrons are losing steam.The few remaining native dogwoods in the area, Cornus florida, dropped their white bracts a couple of weeks ago. Now the lovely Japanese kousa dogwoods are displaying their oddly pointed white bracts, looking like late snow atop their green leaves. People have been planting kousas to replace the native dogwoods, which are dying from the disease anthracnose. Kousas are somewhat resistant to the disease, but they are a far cry from the white drifts of the native trees that used to dot our woodlands.

As a side-note,  true dogwood flowers are the tiny yellowish green things in the centers of the four large white or pink “petals” known as bracts. If it weren’t for those spectacular bracts, dogwoods would hardly be noticeable. As in showbiz, you gotta have a gimmick.

 Dying dogwoods

First reported in 1978 in New York and Connecticut, dogwood anthracnose has spread and destroyed vast numbers of the beautiful trees in the eastern and southern states. It is caused by a fungus named Discula destructiva, an accurate name if ever there was one.  A similar disease  is killing off western dogwood species.

Fortunately, my alma mater, Rutgers University, has come up with promising alternatives to the native dogwood.  Dr. Elwin Orton of the department of plant biology and pathology spent a quarter-century or more developing  hybrids of Cornus florida and Cornus kousa that resist  Discula anthracnose as well as a pest called the dogwood borer. The first group is known as the “Stellar Series”®, Cornus X rutgersensis, and includes  white  varieties as well as one named Stellar Pink.

Rutgers dogwoods to the rescue

In 2008, Rutgers released disease-resistant  Jersey Star® dogwoods, crosses of kousas and the western native dogwood Cornus nuttallii. One variety, Venus®, has absolutely gigantic bracts.

A few years ago we decided to plant the Rutgers hybrid dogwood called Constellation®, which has rounded white bracts similar to the native trees, though it blooms later. Ours managed to survive despite having part of an old mulberry tree fall against it while being removed, so I class it in the mockingbird-tough category. It is in bloom now, and looking more beautiful every year.  I thank the goddess of all flowering things, and Dr. Orton, and Rutgers for its springtime display.

As I poke through the internet trying to learn more about dogwoods and Mr. Lincoln roses, I believe I have detected the culprit that caused Mr. Lincoln’s passing.  This rose  is said to be susceptible to spring time freezes, and we had several episodes of that last month, drat it. It never occurred to me to put some covering over poor old Abe when we heard the frost warnings.

The suspected killer

The only visible frost damage I found in the garden after the first episode was to the hydrangea bush and the young deutzias, which lost their buds to the cold. There were two more light freezes, but I thought all was well.  The deutzias generated a new set of buds and are just now beginning to bloom – they look something like a white forsythia. Ours are still young, dug from the garden of  a delightful editor I used to work for, back in the days when I still had a job.

We are enjoying the early bloom of the perfumed white Sir Thomas Lipton shrub rose, the gorgeous deep rose Hansa, the amazing profusion of pink blossoms on the William Baffin climbing roses, and the dependable but unscented pink and red Knock-outs. Pretty Bonica, weighed down by more buds and leaves than ever before, started winking its pink eyes this morning, and the sturdy pale pink Cape Cod rose in the side yard is flourishing. The remarkably fragrant white Frau Karl Druschkii is just getting started.  I think the kelp meal I fed them last year worked wonders.

Will others meet the same fate?

The later bloomers, the pink Queen Elizabeths, coral Tropicana, coral-pink Fragrant Cloud, deep pink Perfume Delight and the deep red Chrysler Imperial, have yet to open buds, and I worry that some of these more tender varieties may have met the same fate as Mr. Lincoln. And I fear the pretty, fragrant Reine des Violettes, the Queen of Violets, is on its last legs from intractable black spot. The miniature yellow and orange roses will bloom in a few weeks, I hope.

But Mr. Lincoln took an icy blow to its tender heart. And again. And yet again. Slain by unexpected cold, slain in the month of April like its great namesake 147 years ago.

All those teasing warm days in March lured out the young delicate rose leaves weeks before their usual time, defenseless against frost. I knew we would pay for that preternaturally early springtime, and we have. As my mother used to say in Estonian, Suve silmad, talve hambad. The eyes of summer, but the teeth of winter.

Farewell, Mr. Lincoln. Rest in fragrance and peace, in that vast and glorious rose garden of the land of eternal summer.

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.