Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Foraging for Clover Lemonade

A friend is like a four leaf clover: hard to find and lucky to have. – Unknown
Photo: fritish, Flickr CCL

Up early today: 5am. I've gotten slothful sleeping until 7am here in the country. I have a trip to the "big city" ahead of me today. I have two meetings, a garage appointment and lunch with a friend. I have to admit I am neither bright eyed nor bussy tailed right now. Maybe after my coffee...

It's always fun when I research my topic for the day. Without exception I always learn something new or odd. This is no less true with today’s topic, the ubiquitous red clover. 

Photo: eLaSeA, Flickr CCL
Clover is common in the Northern hemisphere and comes in many varieties. As with many other common plants, they have not only found their way into our kitchens but also our medicine cabinets. I'll restrict my blather to red clover. You know – the one you used to pick as a child.

What is red clover?
From Wikipedia...
Trifolium pratense (red clover) is a species of clover, native to Europe, Western Asia and northwest Africa, but planted and naturalized in many other regions.

It is an herbaceous, short-lived perennial plant, variable in size, growing to 20–80 cm tall. The leaves are alternate, trifoliate (with three leaflets), each leaflet 15–30 mm long and 8–15 mm broad, green with a characteristic pale crescent in the outer half of the leaf; the petiole is 1–4 cm long, with two basal stipules. The flowers are dark pink with a paler base, 12–15 mm long, produced in a dense inflorescence.

What is in it?
The main chemical components of red clover are phenolic glycosides (salicylic acid), essential oil (methyl salicylate), sitosterol, genistiene, flavonoids, salicylates, coumarins, cyanogenic glycosides, silica, choline, and lecithin. 

Red clover also contains vitamin A, vitamin C, B-complex, calcium, chromium, iron, and magnesium.

Medicinal uses
Traditionally, red clover has been used to treat cancer, whooping cough, respiratory problems, and skin inflammations, such as psoriasis and eczema. 

Red clover steeped as a tea. Photo: Carly & Art, Flickr CCL
Red clover contains isoflavones, plant-based chemicals that produce estrogen-like effects in the body. Isoflavones have shown potential in the management of menopause, effecting hot flashes, cardiovascular health, and osteoporosis. 

However, as researchers have learned more about the side effects of taking estrogen, there is also some concern about the safety of isoflavones. And the evidence that red clover helps reduce any menopausal symptoms – like hot flashes – is mixed.

Side effects of using red clover extracts are generally mild and thankfully rare. but they do include breast tenderness, menstruation changes and weight gain. Although there is no evidence for concern, it is advised that red clover extracts should be avoided in women with a history of breast cancer. Pregnant and breast feeding women should not take red clover either.

Cooking with clover
To gain any of the benefits (or worrisome effects) of red clover you would have to ingest an awful lot of it. All the medical information pertains to extracts or concentrations, so you’re safe using them to cook. For example, clover honey is sold in grocery stores and there’s no health warnings blasted on the side of it. 

Now if you sat down and ate a gallon of clover honey you would probably have more to worry about than what is written above…

Clover blossoms can be brewed as tea, made into ice cream, tossed into salads, added to pancake batter, biscuits or rice, as well as boiled into syrup that can be used as a sweetener. The seeds can also be sprouted and used much as alfalfa sprouts. These are only a few options. There are many more if you but look. 

Today's offering is a good one for on the back deck in the hot summer sun. Feel free to add a "kick" to it in any manner you desire.

Red Clover Lemonade
3 cups fresh red clover blossoms
8 cups  water
1 cup white sugar, or clover honey
1 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice, or to taste
optional: 1 or 2 drops of red food colouring (to make it pinkish)

Simmer the clover blossoms in the water for 10 minutes. Then add the sugar (or honey)and  stir it until the sugar is dissolved. Cover the pot and let it steep for several hours or overnight. Steeping makes the “tea” stronger.

Lastly, add the lemon juice and red food colouring. If your tea is too brown you may want to omit the food colouring. It's up to you. Chill before use.

Lemonade is a fantastic refresher on a hot summer day and herbal lemonades are no exception.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Can you eat carrot tops?

One is not exposed to danger who, even when in safety is always on their guard. – Publilius Syrus 

“Can you eat carrot tops?” Sounds like a simple enough question. The answer depends on who you ask.

It’s also a relevant question to home gardeners, especially when you start thinning your carrots so the ones that remain can swell to their full underground potential. That’s a lot of waste.

If you do a web search about carrot greens you get a lot of conflicting and confusing information. Some say you can, others warn you to never eat them.

If you’re a small-scale gardener, and hate to waste what you’ve grown, you’ve probably eyed them with some interest. There does tend to be a lot of them.

What's in them?
Scientifically, carrot greens are rich in protein, vitamins and minerals. They contain six times the vitamin C of the root and are a source of potassium and calcium. 

For me, they’ve always ended up in the compost bin. I haven’t ever eaten them because, until this year, I have never grown them. Apparently they are quite bitter. Aside from all the good things in them, nature does have a way of telling you to avoid certain things. The bitter taste is because of the presence of nitrates and alkaloids.

Alkaloids are a class of nitrogen-based plant compounds that can have significant physiological affects on humans. Alkaloids include many drugs, like morphine and quinine, and poisons such as atropine and strychnine.

Nitrates have been used for a very long time to treat heart conditions. They have the ability to reduce the absorption of oxygen in the blood. Infants are particularly susceptible to this action. It’s called “blue baby syndrome.”

Although the toxicity of modern carrots is apparently not as strong as the wild version, they still do have alkaloids and nitrites. But nowhere have I found the actual levels of these compounds in modern carrot greens.

Are you sensitive?
I suppose there's no way to really find out unless you expose yourself to alkaloids and nitrites. But is that wise? Would you go walking in unknown water to discover if there's broken glass?

I have read that people with sensitive skin can actually break out in a rash if exposed to carrot tops. If ingested by sensitive people, they can also experience side effects ranging from a burning sensation in the mouth and throat, increased heart beat, elevated blood pressure, agitation and possibly even death. 

According to the University of Idaho extension office, the risk of death by nitrate poisoning is highest in pregnant women, young children, and individuals with immune disorders. I do believe, though, that it is very rare and has to be in pretty high levels.

I have a sensitivity to quinine. If I drink tonic water I have what feels like a panic attack, including increased heart rate and agitation that results in a feeling of anxiety. So no gin and tonics for me. If I take penicillin-based medicine I break out in welts. So it seems I am one of those who may be sensitive to carrot tops.

There’s also the fact that commercial producers often spray pesticide on carrot tops because they are so (very) seldom eaten. This woudn’t be the case in a home, organic garden.

Counter to all the doom and gloom, the Carrot Museum in the UK (yes, there’s a carrot museum and they are online) strongly promotes carrot leaves as not only being edible but highly nutritious. In blog posts, the New Your Times (anti) and Smithsonian (pro) have also waded into the issue.

Other varying sources note that the greens from carrots are fine to eat and that they can be  added to soups and casseroles, or even made into pesto. I would say pesto would be quite a high concentration. You can quickly find hundreds of recipes.

It’s interesting to see that carrot tops spur such lively debate. Who would have thought.

Since the jury is so firmly out, there’s no recipe today. In the interest of safety (not least my own) I think mine will continue to go into the compost.


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Monday, July 29, 2013

BBQ Cilantro Lime Corn & Shrimp

I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures. – Lao Tzu

Infused with buttery smokey flavour, lime, cilantro and cayenne.

Words to live by. Sometimes simplicity can bring you the greatest of joys. I’m learning that (sometimes the hard way) in our move to the country.

At the risk of repeating myself, one of the main reasons for us to move to the country was to reduce our expenditures and live a little bit more sustainably.

Many of us are doing it. In our case it was to move back to the village where I grew up and sort of reset the “start” button. It’s taking time, which I knew it would, but I’m hopeful, if not always confident.

The melted butter, shrimp skwers and the corn.
There’s an old Chinese proverb that states “Cheap turns out expensive.” It was cheap to move to the home we were to inherit, and it made sense, but last week’s expense was the news that we needed a new well. At about $8,000. And then we'll almost certainly have to treat it. We have a lot of manganese and iron here. Hmmm.

We had a dug well on the property but it seems the two of us – even though we don’t use a lot of water – taxed it beyond its capabilities. You can’t live without water. So in a drilled one will go at the end of this week, hopefully. It sucks not having water, believe me.

I’d better start digging up some more design clients to offset the expense of this well. Even though we had a financial cushion when we moved we don’t want to deplete it. Cushions tend to go flat if you sit on them too much.

My problem (in my past life PR would have called it an “opportunity”) is in locating these clients. I’ve been away from the area so long I’m not sure who to reach out to. I have to put a real push on this coming month. It’s a little disconcerting to have very little money coming in. I guess that’s where patience comes in.

I’m not complaining, really. It’s sort of nice to have down time after 23 years, but some work would be a good thing. But I believe we’ll be safe and comfortable if I/we think and act smart. There’s a lot most of us want, but don’t need. The trick is to make sure you’re still happy as you live a simpler life.

Luckily one of the ways that we can impact our lives is by growing some of our own food. We put in our first garden this spring and it is humming along. I have more beans to pick – possibly the last – and peas to shell. Carrots, onions and beets are swelling in the ground and tomatoes (cherry, heirloom, pink, yellow, Roma) are ripening on the vine. 

Don’t get me started on the cucumbers. If all the blossoms bear fruit we’re in for a pickle-making session like you won’t believe. And that’s only from a few plants.

Even our corn is starting to rocket up. It’s not as “high as an elephant’s eye” but hopefully it will continue to grow clear up to the sky. Local corn harvesting comes later in the season. For now we have to be content with imports. It’s not even available at farmers markets yet.

Simplicity comes in food form as well. Food should always be a joy and doesn't have to be complex. I don’t quite understand people that think preparing to eat is a chore. Sometimes a little time consuming, yes, but a chore, never. And delicious – always. Or at least it should be.

Food should be a pleasure, not only for the palate but also in the preparation. And simplicity has its place. Like in this extremely simple butter to be brushed on as you barbecue.

If you’ve never made “compound butter” you’ll be amazed at how easy it is to make and how much flavour it can deliver. In truth this is the first time I’ve physically used one on the barbecue. The smokiness of grilling really complimented the Latin flavours of the butter baste.

By now we’ve all seen corn grilled on the barbecue in its husk, but you can go old-school and strip it off. It certainly hurries the process along. In fact it cuts the BBQ time in half. But you have to tend it like a baby in bath water. As soon as it starts to brown on one side, turn it.

Since you’re already standing over the open barbecue you may as well cook something else that needs vigilance – shrimp. They take nearly the same amount of time as the corn.

Compound butter bastes are a great way to introduce a lot of flavour, and pleasure, with very little effort. If you grow some of your own food that's just the icing on the cake.

BBQ Cilantro Lime Corn & Shrimp
Prep: 10 min  |  Cook: 15 min  |  Serves 3-4
6-8 ears corn
1 lb shrimp (large or jumbo)
cherry tomatoes
1/2 cup butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
juice 1/2 lime
3/4 tsp cayenne pepper
salt, at the table

Husk the corn and set aside. Peel the shrimp and skewer, spacing them with cherry tomatoes. Set aside on a plate. Mash together the softened butter, cilantro, lime and cayenne in a small bowl.

Heat the barbecue on medium low with the cover down. While the barbecue is heating, place the butter on the top rack to melt. As soon as it liquifies remove it. Then remove the top rack. You’ll need the space.

Place the corn on the barbecue and baste with the butter. While the corn starts to cook baste both sides of the shrimp skewers while still on the plate.

As soon as the corn starts to brown on one side, turn it, baste again and then add the shrimp skewers.

Keep checking both. You’ll notice the corn brightens in colour. Turn the corn to brown the top, bottom and sides. Flip the shrimp as soon as they are cooked on one side. Baste as you go.

The whole process should take no more that 15 minutes.

The amount of butter will do for 8 ears and 1 lb of shrimp. If you want some dipping butter for the table you may want to make a little more – maybe double.


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Sunday, July 28, 2013

Foraging for Beach Peas

To myself I am only a child playing on the beach, while vast oceans of truth lie undiscovered before me. – Sir Isaac Newton

That's a Canadian penny next to the peas. They're tiny, but perfect  looking.
Here's another example of Mother Nature using a familiar shape of plant and flower. This one – beach peas – grow (where else?) on our beaches.

I don’t usually start off with a warning but this time I will. I have found many, many sources that cite historical uses of beach peas as a food source. I have also found the seeds of beach peas (grouped in the family of garden “sweet peas”) contain a toxic amino-acid.

A mass of beach pea on the shore of a local beach in Nova Scotia. You can just see
my spouse and Henry the Bouvier in the waves (top left).
This amino acid—in large quantities—can cause a very serious disease of the nervous system known as Lathyrism. I would assume it is present in all members of the genus Lathyrus because the condition’s name is so like the plant name.

The seed is said to be perfectly safe and very nutritious in small quantities, but should not comprise more than 30% of the diet. So as another blogger wrote, if you’re marooned on a desert island watch out how much you eat.

But now on to the plant...

Beach pea in bloom. It's quite attractive.
Photo: Anita 363, Flickr ccl
If you’ve been to a beach in the northern hemisphere anywhere in the world you’ve most likely seen this. Beach pea is a perennial coastal plant that grows in the sand dunes and gravelly areas of beaches. 

The species that grows here is “var. maritimus.” There are many others that appear worldwide.

Beach pea looks very much like either vegetable peas and/or garden sweet peas except “hardier.” By that I mean tougher looking, I assume to stand up to coastal conditions. It is hardy to USDA Zone 3. That’s pretty hardy.

Bech peas can reach about 2 feet in length. The leaves are oval, arranged in pairs and terminate with a tendril. The flower is a raceme with 5-12 blue-violet flowers. 

If you’ve ever seen a sweet pea (or vegetable pea) you know what they look like. Flowers appear in July through September in Nova Scotia. 

The fruit is a typical legume, with 2 halves that split open  but remain hinged at the base. Inside you will find pea seeds arranged in a row. They are quite tiny in relation to vegetable peas. 

The seeds ripen from late July through to October. If you want to eat the peas you have to pick earlier (when they’re immature) rather than later as they toughen as they mature. If you want to grow it in your garden, you have to let the seeds fully mature.

The pea pods, both "pickable" and dried.
Beach peas are pollinated by bees and butterflies. The plants help in fixing nitrogen in the coastal soil. In Canada, beach pea can be found in British Columbia and from Manitoba to Newfoundland. 

Beach peas can be successfully grown in the garden in well drained soil and full sun. They cannot tolerate shade.

Here’s uses I found for beach pea. Remember the warning at the top of the post...

The immature peas themselves can be cooked like garden peas. The mature seeds can be sprouted and eaten. The pods can be stir-fried whole and the tendrils can be harvested as a “gourmet” treat. Pea tendrils are quite a fad right now in many gourmet food magazines. They are often tossed in with salads.

You can also eat the plants when young, either raw or cooked. The mature dried seeds can be roasted for a coffee substitute. With the price of coffee now I may be trying that one...

The Chinese used beach peas as a tonic for the urinary organs and intestinal tract. Iroquois treated rheumatism with cooked whole young plant. Of course, never try to treat yourself with wild edibles.

So if you can get past the fear of lathyrism it may be well worth a nibble the next time you go to the beach. Just for fun...

I certainly wouldn’t want to have to shell enough of these small green darlings for a meal. So poisoning my family is almost certainly not going to happen – at least not by beach peas...


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Saturday, July 27, 2013

Get your mojo on with Mojo di cilantro

Rock in the mainstream culture has lost a lot of its mojo. – Billy Corgan 

I’ve written about  this phenomenon before. When you purchase fresh cilantro at the grocery you have to buy a massive bunch of it. It’s a shame when most recipes only call for 1/4 cup or so, or as a garnish.

So what do you do with all that leftover green? Luckily there are options.

One really good way is to actually buy enough to make cilantro pesto. It’s almost, if not as good, as basil pesto and can be used in the same way. It’s especially tasty tossed with pasta and just-cooked-through shrimp.

Here’s another option for you. How about a livid green sauce than can go on steak and/or vegetables? It really gives them a kick.

This recipe is close kin to pesto. Really the only thing that’s missing is the nuts, and there is an addition of acid. In my case I used lime. This also helps preserve that wonderful colour.

I found on a Spanish site that it is also excellent on potatoes, polenta, fish and even as a dipping sauce for bread. Sounds pretty versatile to me. Especially when it’s made from an ingredient that we’re “forced” to buy too much of.

Mojo is a Spanish word for a variety of slightly acidic sauces that are served cold. Not quite sure what that may have to do with Austin Powers’ “mojo”... I have read that the term was also used at the turn of the 1900s to mean a Caribbean voodoo power that gave men power over women.

Apparently the sauces are common in the Canary Islands off the tip of Northwest Africa. It is from the Portuguese word molho (meaning sauce). So that would explain how the term came from the tip of Africa, Portugal and Spain to the Caribbean. The slave trade.

No idea when it mutated from meaning sauce to the ability to get “lucky.” So now you know far too much about the word mojo. Stun and amaze people at cocktail parties with your newfound knowledge.

Get your mojo on talking about mojo.

I tried growing cilantro this year but didn’t meet with too much success. I had it in a cast-iron planter. I’m not sure if it was a case of too much iron, or not enough water, or what, but it failed miserably.

I have had much better success in the garden with curly parsley and Italian parsley so next year we’ll try it there. Then I’ll really have too much cilantro!

Just below is the recipe for the mojo. I’m also tag-teaming it with a really great steak marinade. We served the sauce with the steak and slabs of roasted cauliflower. A fantastic meal.

Mojo di cilantro
Time: 5 min  |  Yield: 1 cup
1 bunch cilantro, coarsely chopped
4 garlic cloves
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp chilli flakes
1/2 tsp coarse salt
juice of 1 lime
1/2 - 3/4 cup olive oil

Combine all ingredients, except for the olive oil, in a food processor or blender. Pulse until ground into a purée. Scrape down the sides a few times. 

With the motor running, slowly add the olive oil. Start with 1/2 cup. If you desire a thinner sauce, add the additional 1/4 cup.

Make this sauce within an hour of using. If made hours ahead the cilantro may discolour.

Cumin Steak Marinade
4 steaks
1 tbsp brown sugar
1 tbsp veg oil
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp smoked paprika
1/2 tsp oregano
1/2 tsp cayenne
1/2 tsp pepper
juice of 1/2 lime

Combine the marinade ingredients. Coat the steaks well and then let them marinate for 1 hour on the counter. Shake off the excess and then grill or pan fry in 1 tbsp of oil.


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Friday, July 26, 2013

Indian Spice Rubbed Chicken, and a Raita

You've got to bumble forward into the unknown. – Frank Gehry 

Have you ever bought something having no idea how or even when you will use it? Of course you have. I do it all the time, too.

Fenugreek seeds.
Luckily my purchases tend to be on the smaller side – sometimes quite small actually, in the form of spices or seeds. Thank goodness for the bulk food barn. You can give things a test drive at minimal financial cost. 

About two weeks ago I went in for something (I can’t remember what now) and came out with what I "needed," as well as several small bags of herbs and spices just for fun. I don’t seem to be able to resist them.

It’s worse when I go to ethnic groceries. Don’t leave me alone. You never know what I’ll come out with.

The last really “odd” purchase I made was a bag of dried limes. It turns out they are a staple in much Middle Eastern cuisine, after you pulverize them. You can also throw a whole one in with rice as it cooks for an extraordinary flavour.

But I digress. The weird one that made it to the checkout with me on the day in question was fenugreek. I had heard of it but had never bought it alone. It was right alongside something else I felt I needed (fennel seed for sausages, I believe).

The rub.
Coincidentally, fenugreek is an annual in the family Fabaceae (the peas). I wrote about several in yesterday’s post. Like other members, the plant has the distinctive pea flowers, small round leaves and forms seed pods. 

It is cultivated worldwide and is a common ingredient in dishes from Africa, the Middle East and India. It is in many curry blends. So you may not have bought it separately, but you’ve eaten it.

Fenugreek has a very distinctive smell and taste, right up there with cumin in my mind. You can also use several parts of the plant: the dried seeds, fresh or dried leaves, and even as a micro vegetable (sprouts).

Fenugreek has a “semisweet” aroma. It’s hard to describe. Think of being in a very good Indian restaurant. That’s as close as I can come. Be forewarned, I have read that a little fenugreek goes a long way.

The seeds are often toasted slightly to help activate the aromatic oils. If you’ve ever made your own curry blends you probably have toasted seeds yourself.

Your best friend, on the barbecue or in the kitchen.
Buy yourself an instant-read thermometer.
We’ve been using the barbecue a fair bit lately and I had some chicken in the freezer. So I thought rather than a barbecue sauce it might be nice to mix it up a little with some exotic flair.

This rub didn’t disappoint. Even before the chicken hit the grill the kitchen was filled with the most delicious Indian spice smell.

Four may seem like a lot of dried chillies, but the mix wasn’t very hot at all actually. If you want, feel free to adjust either up or down. It all depends how hot your dried chillies are, and how hot you want the rub.

I made an unbelievably simple side dish for with the chicken that helps cut spiciness. Raita is highly undervalued as a “salad” in North America in my opinion. Onion, carrot, hot pepper, yogurt and mint make a perfect foil for any hot dish. Even people who don’t like a lot of onion will love this.

I’ve given the recipe for the raita, as well the times and temperature I used to cook the chicken on the barbecue. No sense going to the expense of buying chicken breasts only to burn them!

Let the rub flavour the chicken for at least 1 hour.
Indian Spice Rubbed Chicken
4 chicken breasts, bone in, skin on
3 whole dried red chilies (about 4” long each)
5 whole cloves
2 green cardamom pods
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp whole cumin seeds
1 tsp fenugreek seeds
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp whole black peppercorns
1/2 tsp dried ginger
1/2 tsp cinnamon

Combine all the whole spices in a grinder and grind until powdery. I use a coffee grinder especially set aside for spices. Minimal cost, maximum results, quickly.

Rub the spice mix onto all the surface of the chicken. Then cover and let rest on the counter for 1 hour, or refrigerate for 4-8 hours.

Heat your barbecue to about 325°F. Place the chicken pieces directly over the flame, bone side down and let cook for about 10 minutes. Then turn and do the skin side. Check periodically to ensure it’s not burning. Chicken fat tends to flare up.

The yogurt helps cool any "heat" you may find in
the main dish.
After 20 minutes, start checking the internal temperature of the thickest part of the chicken. It should read almost 180°F. It will continue to cook to proper temperature after you remove it.

You can also broil the chicken in the oven, to the same internal temperature.

Onion and Carrot Raita
Serves 4  |  Make at least 1 hour ahead
1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 large carrot, julienned
1 hot green pepper, chopped
1/2 cup plain yogurt (or 1/2 cup sour cream mixed with 1 tbsp sugar)
1/4 cup fresh mint, chopped (or 1 tbsp dried)
juice 1/2 lime
1/2 tsp salt

Mix everything together in a bowl. 

Cover and let sit at room temperature for 1 hour. This allows the acid in the yogurt to mellow and soften the onion.


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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Old Fashioned Perennial Sweet Peas

They say I'm old-fashioned, and live in the past, but sometimes I think progress progresses too fast! – Dr. Seuss

We have some old-fashined perennial sweet peas (Lathyrus latifolius) in our back yard that have been growing here since shortly after our house was built in 1957. I remember them from when I was very, very young in the 1960s.

If family history is correct, my Great Aunt Nettie (one of my two aunts who built it) brought them with her when they retired and moved home from Boston. They came from the garden of one of her “practical nurse” patients. If true, those same seeds have been coming back in the same spot – year after year – for the past 56 years.

That’s what I call a self-seeding perennial. It’s always a welcome sight to see the familiar pea-like stems breaking the ground and starting their reach for the sky in mid spring. It's like a physical connection to my childhood.

It’s interesting how nature, in all its diversity, seems to like certain forms and repeats them over and over again.

A good example is the flower shape of sweet peas. It’s an unbelievably common shape, for all it’s beauty and uniqueness. It is borne on amazingly diverse plants, all seemingly unrelated unless you look them up. They’re all members of the very extended legume family, Fabaceae.

It doesn’t take long to find examples. There is our Lathyrus, and just feet away in our vegetable garden we have its close look-alike, garden peas. We have been eating our peas for a little while now, but sadly that will be soon coming to an end.

This is vetch.
Another member we can find in our yard is a weed. Vetch grows in ditches, fields and pretty much anywhere else it wants to. It is by far the most delicate looking of my examples. My memories of this plant go back to when elementary school used to close for the summer. It always used to be blooming at that time. 

Although historically used as food I have read conflicting information about toxcitity, so don’t pick yourself a bowl to eat. They’re really small, so it would take you quite a while anyway.

American Groundnut (Apios americana) is a vine in the village and is actually a food source. It grows along our riverbanks and is quite rampant. It has tight clusters of pea-like flowers in an interesting combination of maroon and oxblood. To me they smell like raspberry cheesecake ice cream!

The flowers of groundnut. They should be in bloom soon.
I’ve written twice about groundnuts, not for its flowers but for its use as a food. At the end of every vine is a tuber that natives used to harvest and eat as a valuable source of dietary starch.

There’s also locust trees. Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) is fairly common in our village. When I was growing up there used to be many more than now. 

In mid spring the entire tree is covered with sweet scented blossoms. You used to be able to catch drifts of scent when a breeze sprung up. When the blossoms fall off it looks like it’s snowing. Don’t eat these either.

So that’s four plants all with similarly shaped flowers, blooming at different times through the season, that I can count just by walking in my yard and up the road a short distance. And all have links to the main branch of the pea family.

if you love pea flowers but don’t want rampant weeds, or trees, a good option is to plant perennial garden sweet peas. 

Black locust. Photo: Wiki CC
Lathyrus latifolius is native to Europe is an introduced plant in North America and Australia. They can reach 6 feet or more by means holding onto supports via twining tendrils, but without support sprawls on the ground. So give them the support they crave, and lots of sun.

After the flowers pass, they are replaced by long, skinny pea pods that turn from green to brown. By the end of the season the pods split open and curl, flinging out the seeds.

Perennial sweet peas are often confused with annual sweet pea, Lathyrus odoratus. Perennial sweet peas are not as highly scented as the annual variety, but not having to buy and plant every year certainly has its advantages.

A slight disadvantage is the colour is far more limited and the scent not quite as strong. But I can live with that. The ones we have growing are beautiful.

Try getting your hands on some seeds of this dependable plant. It will reward your minimal effort with a show of flowers every year.


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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Making soap with Soapwort “Flore Pleno”

Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful. – William Morris 

That was very true in times past and are words we should try to live by now, both inside and outside our homes. There is so much that is beautiful as well as useful in the plant world.

Take for example what my spouse and our Bouvier, Henry, “discovered” on a walk the other day. It was growing in the ditch right alongside the road. We had no idea what it was.

It’s not that I hadn’t walked past it a thousand times before. I grew up in this village. Once again it’s a case of “looking” but not actually “seeing.” Thanks to a friend, via a friend (all-knowing florist/lecturer/writer Neville MacKay), we were able to identify it. It’s soapwort.

Common Soapwort (Saponaria officinalis) is an old-fashioned perennial plant in the carnation family. Other names for it are Bouncing Bess (or Bet) and soapweed. There are about 20 species of soapworts worldwide. 

Europeans originally introduced soapwort to North America in colonial times. Bouncing Bess is an old English slang term for a washerwoman.

The one growing in the ditch was “Flore Pleno.” Flore-pleno is a more decorative double-flowered soapwort that can grow upwards of 3’ tall on stiff, straight stems. Like the five petalled common soapwort, it is a European native plant now naturalized throughout much of North America. 

But how did it get into a ditch in a rural village, with no other soapwort around? I believe it was an escapee from a century and a half ago.

This is the First Settlers House. At its height as a hotel it had
an addition out the back as big as the main house, a wrap around
porch and a mostly glass dining room sticking off to the right.
In the heart of the village we have preserved (or pretty much preserved) the home of the first settler, Samuel Hunt and his family. The house went through many additions, at one time being a hotel with dining hall and around 8-10 rentable cabins on the grounds for hunting and fishing enthusiasts. 

Now it has been torn back to the original structure built around 1830. When it was first erected it would have been one of only a few houses in the village. Since it was imperative to be almost entirely self-sufficient, soapwort was probably brought and planted for its usefulness. The beautiful flowers were a bonus.

A most useful plant
The botanical name Saponaria is derived from the Latin sapo meaning "soap.” The stems, leaves and roots produce a gentle lather when boiled in water. If you have sensitive skin and find most soaps too drying (and ones you can use too expensive) soapwort may be something to consider.

Soapwort contains saponins, which create the soap-like cleaning action. Saponin is also a poison, so is not to be ingested. The roots, when flowering, contain as much as 20% saponin. But it can be used externally in many ways so it a very good garden plant if you like beauty and utility.

It is certainly a good choice for the environment. Soapwort soap has no harsh chemicals or environmentally destructive additives and therefore causes no danger when returned to the environment. It’s also very easy to grow. In fact, it does better in poor soil than good.

Besides being able to be cultivated from seed, soapwort spreads via a thick rhizome. It can be tenacious. If you dig in your garden parts of the rhizome can end up with other garden refuse and start to grow wherever you dump. 

Soapwort is cultivated to a certain extent as an ornamental, although nowadays other perennials have nudged this useful garden favourite to the sidelines, or should I say ditches... That’s a shame, as the flowers have a lovely fragrance, which spreads especially well in the evening. Soapwort is an excellent butterfly and moth attractor as well.

Soapwort and pets
One caution is to NOT use soapwort-derived soap or shampoo to wash your dog or cat.  Because of the saponin, soapwort shouldn't be ingested and a pet might lick some soap residue off if they aren't thoroughly rinsed off.

I found this basic recipe for soapwort liquid soap in several places on the web. I haven’t made it... yet.

I may wait until next year when we have some soapwort of our own growing in our garden.

Soapwort Liquid Soap
2 cup fresh soapwort leaves & stems, chopped (1 cup dried)
4 cups spring water
optional: essential oils or other botanical additives

Brin the water to a boil. Add the soapwort and cover the pan. Simmer for 15 minutes, then remove from the heat and let cool. Strain through several layers of cheesecloth.

If using additives, stir in once cool.

Whisk the mixture, bottle and refrigerate. It will keep for about 1 week.


You know, I really like comments... I really do.

Questions? Comments? Derogatory remarks? Just ask! I’ll answer quickly and as best as I can. If you like this post feel free to share it. If you repost, please give me credit and a link back to this site.