Signs of Spring: They’re elusive and you may have to get up in the middle of the night to see them. But, once the yellow spotted salamanders are on the move, we will know it’s time to clean up the garden!! So, heads up (or down, as this case may be!)
It’s Candlemas!! (Or, Groundhog Day) Welcome to Season 7 at the North Greenwich Congregational Teaching Garden!!
“If Candlemas be fair and bright … Winter has another fight. If Candlemas be cloud and rain …Winter’s gone and won’t come again.”
Olde English Rhyme
“Noche de los Rábanos”
Oaxaca, Mexico has been a major agricultural region that produces a bumper crop of radishes around Christmas. To boost sales, a local friar in the 16th century came up with the brilliant idea of a Christmas Vigil market where farmers could also show off their creative talents, carving radishes into nativity-themed masterpieces - focusing particularly on “ugly” roots. The event became so popular that the townspeople have continued to gather for a “night before the night before Christmas” fiesta – known as the Noche de los Rábanos (Night of the Radish.) It is held annually on December 23 (Saturday). Since radishes are one of our specialties, we should think about starting our own rábano holiday tradition!!
The arrival of Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hymealis) is always a harbinger of winter. The name “hyemalis” means “wintry.” These members of the sparrow family migrate from northern coniferous forests to escape even harsher winter climes. Their common name comes from a Latin word, meaning “rush” – the plant found in marshy areas – although they actually prefer woodlands, fields (and gardens) in order to forage for seeds. They roost at night in covered tree branches, or hollow trees.
My grandmother referred to them as the “snowbirds” since they appear shortly before cold temperatures set in and disappear quickly as warmer weather returns.
While the Blue Jay is definitely beautiful, we tend to see the bird as perhaps a bit too assertive, if not outright obnoxious. One thing is certain when observing its behavior in the garden, the Blue Jay is not shy going after what it wants. Everything about this species speaks of energy and vitality. But that passion can make it a nuisance, even a pest. Our Native American forebears believed the Blue Jay to be a selfish bird, but if they found one of its feathers on the ground, they would see it as the call to a new venture ... and that we should embrace with authority and confidence.
The Red Bird
Soon, we will see Cardinals depicted on a number of our holiday greeting cards . Red, of course, is one of the Christmas season’s pivotal colors – symbolizing life, energy, passion and strength. While a sudden flash of the cardinal’s vibrant plumage always stirs us, perhaps what really draws us to “red birds” is their hardiness. Unlike the migratory song birds, they don’t abandon us during the "lean" months. They continue to share their joy and song as winds moan and snow flies - urging us to stay strong and positive even during the darkest and cruelest periods of our lives.
His Eye is On the Sparrow!!
Many sparrows frequent the Teaching Garden and environs – particularly in the winter months – looking for ragweed, crabgrass and various stray seeds. This White-Throated Sparrow was seen foraging the nearby hedgerow.
There are many references to sparrows in the Bible. Because they are a noisy and social bird, the “lone” sparrow became a symbol of deep loneliness. ( Psalm 102) Sparrows were allowed to build their messy nests in the eaves of the Temple, because the “insignificant” birds were sold to the poor for ritual purposes. (Leviticus 14) In fact, if you bought four sparrows at a copper coin a piece, the money changer would throw one more in for free! It was this “extra” sparrow that prompted Jesus’ teaching that God’s care for the created order is so great that even the tiniest sparrow is noted and observed. (Luke 12)
One of the plants that continues to thrive through the winter months is the common houseleek. The scientific name, Spempervivum, means “live forever,” as indeed it does. The species that we planted is Sempervivum tectorum. “Tectorum” is translated “of roofs.” Apparently, Charlemagne, ordered all villagers to plant houseleeks on their sod, or thatched roof. The plant was also known as “Jupiter’s beard” and believed to ward off all lightning bolts cast by the God of Thunder. Interestingly, that’s also how the term “house plants” began. Rather than bring the nature indoors, house plants were literally grown on the house.
Tuesday Treasure - The Radish
Even though radishes probably originated in northern China, historical record indicates that they have been cultivated around the globe for millennia. Those who built the ancient Pyramids of Egypt are said to have been paid in radishes. Ancient Greeks used radishes for their medicinal value. The Roman admiral, Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) wrote of the healing oil that can be extracted from radish seeds.
Radish is from the Latin, meaning root. The beer halls of Bavaria still use the term, “radi,” which are served with their renown veal sausages, sweet mustard and (of course) “liquid” bread – or craft bier. In fact, Bavarians stoutly contend that a steady diet of beer and salted radishes keep them in good health throughout the long winter months. And why not? Radishes contain enough vitamin C to ward off colds and scurvy. Zum Wohl!
I caught my first glimpse of a winter wren this week. They are certainly active little birds, so it’s difficult to get them to pose for a photo. While most songbirds migrate south in winter when insects are scarce, winter wrens will stick it out. They are also known as “cutty” wrens, because of their short, stubby tails. Once the snow flies, winter wrens will retreat to holes close to the ground, in masonry, or wood. Their short tails enable them to fit into teeny, tiny spaces. We’ll see them occasionally darting in and out of our stone walls. They don’t stay put, often flitting from place to place. It is said that they inspired the expression, “home is where the heart is.” They are very sociable, often sharing their space and huddling together for warmth during cold spells.
It’s pumpkin-carving time!!
Here are the pumpkins and a few odd watermelons that were harvested from our inaugural patch this weekend. Actually pumpkins were not the first vegetable ** to be carved to make All Hollow’s Eve lanterns. Celtic people in the Old World carved turnips (or rutabagas) to make the lanterns that ward off any evil spirits that may be lurking in the night. When Irish immigrants brought the custom to America, they found that native pumpkins were much easier to carve. Why are they called Jack O’Lanterns? Well, there are many fascinating “Stingy” Jack tales surrounding that tradition, but alas too earthy for this page. Have fun researching those on your own.
** Actually, pumpkins are fruit. Many fruits which are not sweet - such as tomatoes, beans, peppers are popularly thought to be vegetables
Our thanks to Kerry and Peter Linderoth for all their help tending the Teaching Garden this season!
I have mixed feelings about bittersweet. For years, we decorated our home every Thanksgiving with hand-woven garlands and wreathes of bittersweet. I have a soft spot in my heart for this whimsical harbinger of autumn. Having said that, it’s a pernicious plant that strangles trees and smothers entire native plant communities! While there is native “American” bittersweet, chances are the vines wrapping their tendrils around your conifers are “Oriental” bittersweet. A native of East Asia, this variety was introduced to the United States and planted on walls and fences because spreads quickly and tolerates harsh conditions. It was later used to control erosion along roadsides. It produces tons of seeds that are widely distributed by birds. Horticulturists strongly advise removing the vine. And no matter how beautiful it looks, DON’T bring it home to decorate your home for Thanksgiving!!
“The Very Hungry Caterpillar”
“All that glisters is not gold.” William Shakespeare
I’m afraid that this week’s entry must be filed under the “live and learn” category. Our promising fall season has been all but obliterated by this handsome little guy, or I should say a battalion of these little guys – crossed-striped cabbage worms. An enduring pest in southern gardens, the cabbage moth caterpillar eventually found its way to southern New England. Usually cooler weather requires the use of a cloche (those mesh tunnels that protect our plants from nighttime temperatures.) Since we’ve been enjoying an extended Indian summer, we didn’t set up the cloches, forgetting that the netting also protects plants from prolific egg-layers of all shapes and sizes. Because we don’t use pesticides (not even ones rated for organic gardens) our usual battle game is to “squish” the foe. Alas, we have lost the day.
We are accustomed to the annual Monarch migration in the late summer, early fall. Not as familiar is the migration of the Painted Ladies!! This pinkish-orange and black butterfly is probably the most common species in the word (with the exception of South America.) In North America, the migration begins as temperatures climb in northeastern Mexico. Larger numbers head north and northeast if seasonal rains are heavier than usual. The factors contributing to their high populations during the summer include good food sources and lower levels of parasites, predators and diseases. We often see their caterpillars among our thistle in the pollinator garden. Needless to say they begin to disappear in August as the trek back to Mexico begins. Unseasonably warmer temperatures in recent weeks may be altering their internal clock somewhat. But all they need are a few stiff Northerlies, and they’ll be sipping Tequila before frost appears on the pumpkin.
We are introducing Montauk daisies to our pollinator garden this year! Unlike spring’s Ox-eye daisies and summer’s Shasta daisies, Montauks bloom only as the asters begin to fade … thus providing a little autumnal drama. Once considered a chrysanthemum because the perennial originated in Japan, botanists now recognize it as a genus within the daisy family. It was introduced to North America in the latter half of the Nineteenth century and adapted so well to the sandy soils of Eastern Long Island that it was considered a native species ( hence its name ). Its’ pungent aroma repels deer and rabbits, although migrating butterflies welcome it among their dwindling options.
“You thought you knew every twig and leaf by the roadside and nothing more was to be looked for there ... and now to your surprise, the ditches are crowded with millions of little stars.”
Henry David Thoreau
Today, we are showcasing our Michaelmas Daisies. Actually, they aren’t daisies at all, but rather asters that bring a much needed touch color to the garden as summer growth is fading. The reason New England Asters are called Michaelmas Daisies is because they are at the height of their bloom on, or around the Feast of Michael the Archangel (September 29.)
What amazes us about asters is their evolutionary design. What appear to be the wildflower’s petals were once an outer row of the flower’s circle of stamens that developed into "florets" and, through natural selection, lengthened and changed color in order to attract pollinating insects!!
Identification is frustrating because there are over 250 species of asters, a number that constantly changes because the plant easily forms hybrids.