Friday, June 26, 2015

Vegan Lemon Coolers, Version 2



Today I'm taking a vacation day from work, so I celebrated last night by making a new version of the vegan lemon coolers I cooked up a few weeks ago. These new coolers are a bit chubbier (I added more flour) and more sugary (I rolled them in powdered sugar twice--right before baking and right after). They're pretty good.

Carl helped me with my baking (in other words, he sat on the counter and stared at me), and meanwhile I made up stories about him and his adventures. As I've mentioned before, I like to pretend he's my little boy, perpetually four years old, and that he talks and walks on two legs. He acts like a human child, but he looks like a cat (except he's dressed in adorable clothes).

I like to entertain/annoy Rob with these imaginings. "We have a country house called Great Oaks," I said last night as I mixed and stirred (Rob was sweeping). "We go there on the weekends and sometimes for the whole summer. Carl has a pony and I let him ride around the property, which measures exactly a hundred acres. Even though he's only four, he's a good rider and very responsible. He likes to ride to our pond, where there are alligators, but I don't worry because Carl knows better than to get down off his pony."

Rob, predictably, rolled his eyes. "Are you sure it's a pony and not a miniature horse?" he asked. "A pony might be too big for Carl to handle."

I thought a minute. "Okay, fine. It's a miniature pony."

"Well, I don't know how a miniature pony would do around a pond full of alligators," he said.

I sighed. "Okay, fine. Erase the alligators. And stop using logic. Logic ruins everything."

Vegan Lemon Coolers

Ingredients:

1 cup softened vegan butter
1/2 cup sugar
3 Tbls lemon juice
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups flour
1 cup powdered sugar

Directions:

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the lemon juice and vanilla and mix again. Blend in the flour. Roll the dough into 1-inch balls. Place the powdered sugar in a shallow bowl and roll the dough balls in the sugar. Arrange on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper and bake for 20 to 22 minutes. Let the cookies cool and then coat them in powdered sugar one more time.


Carl sleeping on the pie safe





Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Vegan Lemon Coolers



On Saturday night I made Vegan Lemon Coolers. It was so much fun. The kitchen smelled of lemon zest, and the windows were open so the house was full of frog songs. Rob was nearby, sweeping up piles of catnip and cat fur and legions of toy mice, and I was talking in a merry voice, saying things like “Darn, I put in too much baking powder” and “Darn, all my dough balls are coming out different sizes.” I’m a terrible baker.

Luckily, the coolers turned out tasty despite my lack of skill. They were so easy. I found the perfect recipe on Savory Experiments and veganized it.

Rob and I ate our cookies in the living room that night while watching Silicon Valley and Daredevil. Usually our cats hang out with us, but not this time. They were "camping" on the breezeway. See, in summer they like to sleep out there in the pie safe, turning the shelves into bunk beds. They sleep one cat per shelf, with little Carl on the top shelf. (Leftover cats sleep on the table.) They sigh and stretch in the warm air as moths and fireflies dance like dream creatures just outside the screens.

Vegan Lemon Coolers

Ingredients:

1/2 cup vegan butter
1 cup sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 tsps Ener-G egg replacer
2 Tbls water
1 tsp lemon zest
1 Tbls lemon juice
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 cups flour
1 cup powdered sugar


Directions:

In a large bowl, add the butter and sugar and beat with an electric beater until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla.

Whisk the egg replacer and water together in a small bowl until frothy. Add the "egg" to the sugar, butter, and vanilla.

Add the lemon juice and lemon zest and mix again.

Whisk the salt, baking powder, baking soda, and flour together in a medium-sized bowl. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and mix again until well blended.

Place the powdered sugar in a shallow bowl. Form the dough into 1-inch balls and roll in powdered sugar. Arrange the balls on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper.

Bake at 350 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes.



Thursday, May 21, 2015

Maintenance



Recently we had to have all our porch and step railings replaced because they'd rotted. It took months to get them rebuilt and painted. Now that all the work's done, I wanted to show you some “after” pictures and tell you a little about how I became interested in historic preservation.

I didn’t grow up in an old house; I grew up in a new house in a new suburban neighborhood in Tallahassee. Yet my love of old houses began when I was very young.

I think the passion really took hold when I was five and my mom read me Magic Elizabeth by Norma Kassirer. It’s still one of my favorite books. The plot goes something like this: One summer a lonely little girl named Sally is left in the care of her mother’s lonely, seemingly stern old aunt who’s in town for a few months to sell her childhood home, a rundown Victorian. At first Sally's scared of the old house and the old lady, but she gradually begins to enjoy herself. She spends her days exploring the attic and the tangled garden, and in the end she solves a decades-old mystery, finding a beloved doll (Elizabeth) that Aunt Sarah lost as a child. The best part is the last page: Aunt Sarah announces that she’s decided not to sell the house but to restore it and live in it, and Sally promises to be a frequent visitor.

The book made a huge impression on me. After Mom and I finished reading, I began to believe that answers could be found in old houses. Or at least clues. An old house had secrets, stories, wisdom. It could tell you things. That’s what Magic Elizabeth taught me. I only got to visit my grandmother’s 19th-century farmhouse a few times in my life, but when I did I’d head straight to the attic. I’d dig through dusty chests and page through old, falling-apart picture books, trying to figure out who I was and where I’d come from.

See, my family lived really far away from any relatives and we hardly ever went visiting, so I was always full of questions about my identity and my family history. As I rummaged through Gramma’s trunks and boxes, I was looking for answers. Why was my mother the way she was? Why had she married my father? Why did we live so far away?

Gramma’s house was razed in the 1980s, and I sure wish it hadn’t been. I always considered that a terrible mistake, because Magic Elizabeth taught me that historic preservation can have a healing effect—not just on old buildings but on people, on broken families.

It can help mend entire communities, I've come to believe. Experiencing old places can give us a greater sense of belonging, make us feel less alone. It can help us understand that we’re part of a continuum, that we’re connected to the people of the past and the people of the future.

Living in my old house, I’m constantly aware of the “ghosts,” the people who lived here before I did. When I’m digging in the vegetable garden I often find their lost buttons and coins, and the daffodils they planted still bloom around my birthday. I’m also aware that if all goes right the house will outlast me and someone new will live here someday. Until then, I’ll keep fixing stuff and painting and repainting. I’ll try to be a good steward.









Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Amazing Spiderwort



One day a long time ago when I was still living in Atlanta, I was driving in the country on my way up to the mountains when I passed an old wooden house surrounded by dewy blue spiderworts (Tradescantia virginiana). The house was weathered and silvery—unpainted—and its lawn was entirely blue. The “lawn” was composed of hundreds and hundreds of spiderworts. It looked like a little blue lake, with the house floating in the middle like a boat. I almost ran off the road, I thought it was so pretty.

And so I was glad when I moved to Quincy and discovered spiderworts growing wild in my new yard. There weren’t as many as in the lawn of the old house in North Georgia, but there were quite a few. The grass was spotted with cool, refreshing blue. I knew Rob would be mowing, so I rescued the spiderworts and moved them into my planting beds.

Today, spiderworts grow here and there all around the house, in the company of ferns and other wildflowers—most notably, wild petunias in a matching lavender-blue shade. On spring and early-summer mornings, both species look so fresh, so cool and tranquil, so delicious. They put me in mind of blue-raspberry popsicles, Berry Blue Kool-Aid, and other thirst-quenching treats.

Spiderwort, also known as Virginia spiderwort, lady's tears, Job’s tears, snake-grass, spiderlily, dayflower, flower-of-a-day, trinity lily, and trinity flower, is an herbaceous perennial native from Florida north to New England and west to Minnesota and East Texas. It grows up to 2 feet tall and can be found in meadows and open woods and along stream banks and roadsides.

The leaves are long (often measuring a foot or more) and strap-like, about an inch wide, tapering toward the tip. In shade, they’re medium green, but in more sun they tend to turn chartreuse. They’re kind of grass-like in appearance, but more tender and fleshy. The way they tend to bend over in the middle, they remind me a little of spider legs—daddy longleg legs, in particular. Rabbits, turtles, and deer are known to nibble them, and some people say humans can eat them too, though I don’t plan to try them.

Here in Quincy, my spiderworts bloom steadily from the beginning of April until around the end of June. The flowers in my yard are blue or violet, which are the most common colors for spiderworts, but I’ve read about plants that have pink flowers or even white ones, though white is supposedly quite rare. Each flower measures about an inch across and has three rounded petals. In the center of the flower are six stamens topped with bright yellow anthers (pollen holders).

The blooms of a spiderwort are precious, fleeting, ephemeral. They stay open for only a day—or a morning, if it’s sunny. By afternoon, they’ve wilted, faded away, but new blooms appear daily (or almost daily) throughout the spring. If you want to support bees, this is a good plant to include in your pollinator garden. I’ve seen all kinds of bees visiting the flowers—honeybees, carpenter bees, halictine bees, bumblebees. . . . I read that bumbebees are the primary pollinators.

Spiderwort is adaptable and will grow in a variety of soil types, including moist, dry, sandy, clay, rich, poor, acid, and alkaline. It does best in part shade but can also endure full sun. In mid-summer the foliage can get a little messy and bedraggled-looking, so you might want to cut it back if you think it’s an eyesore. New leaves will develop as temperatures cool down, and plants will sometimes flower again in fall.

After 10 years of tending it, I’m happy to report that my population of spiderworts is slowly but steadily growing. Established plants will self-sow, but spiderwort also spreads through underground stems (stolons) and, given time, can form large colonies—like the one I saw that day and never forgot. Finding that magical, all-blue yard in the foothills of the mountains is still one of my favorite memories.






This is one of the beds where my spiderworts grow. Unfortunately, you can't really see them in the shot. So what is the point of this picture? I don't know.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Add Sparkle with Spangle Grass



Chasmanthium latifolium is known by many common names—river oats, wood oats, Indian wood oats, wild oats, northern sea oats, upland sea oats, inland sea oats, flathead oats, upland oats, broadleaf uniola—but to me the most apt and evocative of all its names is spangle grass. This is a plant with a whole lot of flash.

In fall, it lights up a semi-shady spot with bright, coppery, oat-like seedheads that twinkle in the sunlight and flutter with every breeze. The seedheads also provide much-needed winter interest in the garden. After they’ve glittered their way through autumn, they persist—faded, ethereal, ghostlike—until spring.

A lot of grasses that really show off in fall and winter seem to like to take a backseat in summer. Well, spangle grass doesn’t do that. It’s eye-catching all year round. In the warm months its soft, bamboo-like leaves create a tropical effect. The leaves are lime-green in full sun and darker green in shade. Spangle grass is graceful and arching, loose and airy, and usually grows about thigh-high. Dangling pale green flowers appear in May or June.

Spangle grass occurs naturally in moist woodlands from Florida west to Arizona and north to Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. A common component of mature bottomland hardwood forests, it is often found growing in isolated patches along streams.

In the wild, lush, soft clumps of spangle grass provide cover and nesting spots for everything from turkeys and quail to rabbits, voles, and mice. Turkeys, wood ducks, and many other birds feast on the abundant seeds.

In the garden, spangle grass can be used in mass plantings or as a specimen. A clump here or there makes a wonderful accent, especially near a water feature. The grass also works well in tubs and other large containers. Pair it with black-eyed Susans or native asters for extra dazzle in fall. The soft texture of spangle grass provides a welcome contrast to stiffer, coarser plants. In my yard, I have it planted close to some old-fashioned roses, and the combination of formal rose blossoms and free-flowing seedheads is really surprising and pretty.

Spangle grass is easy to grow. Though it flourishes in sun and moist, fertile soil, it also does well in part shade and dry, poor soil. My spangle grass grows in a dim, parched, sandy place under some wild sumacs on the north side of the house, and it thrives there even though I almost totally neglect it. (I do cut back its old growth in early spring.)

Planting spangle grass in dry shade is a good way to prevent it from self-sowing—a thing it will do like crazy given half a chance. You'll definitely want to discourage it. Another way to keep “babies” from popping up all over your yard is to gather the seedheads in fall (if you don't mind depriving the birds). They’re stunning in bouquets and dried arrangements, and they won’t shatter.


Fall display


Spring leaves in a bouquet with purple coneflowers and heirloom roses


Growing next to Mrs. B.R. Cant, in early April


Under the sumacs, in late April

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Imperial Piedmont Azalea



When I was growing up, my parents had a piedmont azalea that was queen of the side yard. From my earliest memory, it was sprawling and spready—utterly enormous. A grand thing. In spring it would be dressed in pale and shining raiment and surrounded by fawning courtiers (bees and butterflies).

By the time I was 10 or 11, its origin had become the stuff of legend. Mom and Dad had rescued it when the Tallahassee Mall was just about to be built. Apparently the site of future construction had been temporarily opened to the public and Tallahasseeans had come out with their shovels to dig wild azaleas and dogwoods and ferns from the doomed woods.

As a child I was fascinated by bygone times, and I would often wonder what our town must have been like when the azalea was rescued, before the big mall came in. (I couldn't really remember.) It was sad to think about what was lost, of the woods that were only ghosts now, only memories. Tallahassee was always changing, always growing, getting bigger and uglier (in my opinion). Nothing stayed the same.

Our azalea seemed like a precious relic of the past—that’s how my parents treated it. Like a dinosaur bone. I never dreamed, as a child, that you could just go to a nursery and buy a piedmont azalea. I thought the plant could only be found in wild, undisturbed places, and I knew there weren't many of those left.

So it was with great excitement that I discovered, in my early 30s, that piedmont azaleas are pretty widely available in the nursery trade. In my yard in Quincy, I now have dozens. I've planted them in clusters around my various patios and sitting areas, and I've planted them singly, here and there, in our patch of woods in the backyard.

Piedmont azalea (Rhododendron canescens) is a large deciduous shrub (6 to 15 feet is the typical height) with a delicate texture and a graceful, open form. When it’s in bloom, especially, it has a wonderfully ethereal quality. One time when I was young (in my twenties), I was on a Greyhound bus headed through South Georgia when I spied one, in full flower, in a dreary stretch of still mostly bare March woods. The gray of the landscape went on and on, mile after mile, but then there it was—the piedmont azalea—such a sweet surprise. It was like coming upon a fairy or an angel. My heart quickened at this beautiful, unexpected, and unearthly vision, and I was filled with delight—even though I had no money and no prospects and was riding on a bus.

The 2-inch flowers are fragrant and funnel-shaped, arranged in wreath-like clusters. Their very long stamens make them look extra fancy and dainty. The flowers open in early spring, often before the leaves, and come in a variety of colors. Some plants have white flowers. Others have pink—and the pinks come in all shades, from light to dark, from baby pink to bubblegum to rose. (It’s always a fun, when I bring home a new plant, to see what color its flowers will be.) White or pink, the flowers smell delicious, and they provide nectar for hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies.

The leaves are 1 to 3 inches long, medium green, velvety, oval-shaped, and cute. They make nice blankets for tiny hedgehog and mouse babies when you’re playing Calico Critters with children.

Piedmont azalea thrives in moist, rich, well-drained, acidic soils. Part-shade is best, though plants can be grown in full sun with careful watering. In the wild, piedmont azalea is often seen growing along streams and the edges of swamps. It’s native from Central Florida up to North Carolina and west to East Texas.

Piedmont azaleas can live a long time. The one at Mom’s house is about 50 years old now and is still as splendid and stately as ever. I was over there on Easter, and before I hid a pink egg in a branch, I made a little bow in tribute.





Saturday, April 11, 2015

Red Buckeye Rules in Spring



Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is a plant so spectacular that it once inspired me to change my life, to change careers, to quit my job and study horticulture.

I was 33 and teaching English in Atlanta at a school I suspected was doing the kids more harm than good. It was springtime and, dedicated teacher that I was, I’d often spend my lunch break gazing out the window. I’d peer into the surrounding woods, which were full of red buckeyes in brilliant bloom. Trilliums nodded beneath them, beeches towered above, and ruby-throated hummingbirds zipped from flower to flower, their wings a silver blur. The scene was so lovely that it filled me with hope, and as I gazed out the window, I began to believe a better life was possible.

One day I came home and said to Rob, “I think what I’d really like to do is work with plants.”

And a few months later I was taking horticulture classes—learning to drive a tractor and graft camellias. I’d found a perfect fit.

All these years later, red buckeye is still one of my favorite plants. It’s highly ornamental and great for wildlife.

It’s one of the first plants in my yard to leaf out in spring. The leaves are red or bronze as they emerge, but they soon turn shiny bright green. The mature leaves are large and lush—star-like—each composed of five toothed leaflets that can measure up to six inches long.

The blooms come early too. In the first weeks of March they appear in showy 10-inch clusters that look like strings of Chinese firecrackers. But the flowers are full of nectar, not gunpowder, and they’re timed just right to meet the hungry ruby-throats as they return from their overwintering grounds in Mexico and Central America.

For these little birds, the red buckeye is a very important food source because it blooms at a time when many other plants are still dormant and nectar is tough to find. In fact, the ruby-throat is believed to be the red buckeye’s main pollinator, though the plant is also used by bees and some butterflies.

The fruit is ripe by the end of summer. It’s a light brown, leathery-skinned capsule containing one to three large, round, shiny brown seeds that are said to resemble deer eyes. (The seeds give the plant its name.) The seeds are beautiful and glisten like jewels, but, unfortunately, they’re poisonous and largely ignored by wildlife.

Red buckeye usually takes the form of a large shrub or small tree (8 to 10 feet is the typical height), but I’ve seen much larger specimens. On Easter my family and I went canoeing down the Chipola River, and up on the limestone banks stood venerable red buckeyes at least 30 feet tall. They had thick, sturdy trunks wrapped in pale, lichen-studded bark. Lipstick-red flowers bloomed high in the air, visited by tiger swallowtails.

Red buckeye is native from Central Florida up to North Carolina and west to Illinois and East Texas. It prefers neutral to alkaline soils, so you might want to add lime if your soil is acidic. Shade to part-shade is best, though plants can be grown in full sun with regular watering during the first year or two. Red buckeye loses its leaves early, often in July or August, which might be something to consider when you’re choosing a planting site. I grow my red buckeyes in a shady border interspersed with evergreen needle palm, so when the buckeyes go dormant you don’t really notice; you’ve still got the green, fountain-like needle palms to enjoy.





Sunday, March 15, 2015

In Pursuit of the Pawpaw

I’ve never tasted a pawpaw, but I’ve often dreamed of it. I started to be aware of the existence of pawpaws and pawpaw trees about 15 years ago, when I worked at Georgia Wildlife Federation (GWF) near Atlanta. The organization did a lot to promote the use of native plants in home landscapes, and we even sold common pawpaw trees, which are native to a good portion of the country, at one of our fundraising events.

I had to write a little blurb about the common pawpaw (Asimina triloba) for our plant sale catalog, and the research I did while writing got me so excited. The little tree had big, lush, drooping leaves with a tropical look, I read, and delectable, custard-like fruit whose flavor and texture were likened, by more than one writer, to banana cream pie. I began to get a craving.

My dad told me he had eaten pawpaws before, as a little boy in North Carolina. They grew in the woods around his grandfather's farm and he'd go picking them with his wild country cousins.

I asked him if the farm still existed.

No, Dad said, it had been developed into a subdivision. Those wild cousins had become millionaires.

Pawpaws were better known in the old days, I guessed, when there were more farms and woods and fewer subdivisions and people lived closer to the land.


Dad as a child (with Granny) in the 1940s

The pawpaws we sold at GWF were grown by my colleague Terry, who owned 80 acres in the country and was well acquainted with these mysterious plants. In late summer, she and her husband would go pawpaw picking in the woods around GWF’s headquarters. Pawpaws looked kind of like short, fat bananas, she told me. “And when they’re ripe, you can just smell ‘em,” she said. “You can just follow your nose.”

I used to walk the trails in the woods around GWF, sniffing, hunting for pawpaws, but I never found any except a couple of green ones. They ripened, Terry told me, at some magic moment “usually around Labor Day.” Somehow I always missed it.


Georgia Wildlife Federation headquarters circa 2001

I didn’t plant my own pawpaw tree until I moved to Quincy—because my little backyard in Atlanta didn’t have the room. Now I have four pawpaws. They’ve never fruited, not even the oldest ones, which I planted 10 years ago, but the trees themselves are quite decorative.

In early spring, at the same time or just before the leaves uncurl, small six-petaled flowers appear. They’re reddish brown and smell faintly fetid—two qualities that are very attractive to carrion-loving flies and poop-loving beetles, which are the pawpaw’s primary pollinators. I agree with the flies and beetles—the flowers are cute, though I don’t think they look like meat or poop. No, to me they look like little jingle bells arranged up and down the branches of the tree.

The leaves of the common pawpaw are bright green and glossy and can measure up to a foot long. Because of the way they hang from the tree, they put me in mind of the crystal droplets on a chandelier—they just kind of dangle.


New spring leaves

The leaves are even prettier when they’re studded with tiny, bead-like butterfly eggs and striped caterpillars—at least that’s my opinion. Pawpaw hosts the zebra swallowtail. This beautiful butterfly is picky; it will only lay its eggs on plants in the genus Asimina—and throughout much of the zebra swalowtail’s range Asimina triloba is the only Asmina around. (This isn’t true in Florida, which has, I think, eight native pawpaw species.)

Common pawpaws can grow up to 30 feet tall, but 15 to 20 feet is more common. Pawpaws do best when they’re planted in part shade in deep, rich, loamy soil. Though they fruit better with more light, it’s tough to get them established in the open. Young trees, in my experience, need some protection from the sun.

My mom has a pawpaw tree in her yard, and it fruited last summer. She was so excited, she called me at work to tell me the news. “My pawpaw’s got pawpaws!” she exclaimed. I love this kind of phone call. A few weeks ago, Mom called me and announced, without even a hello, “Well, the robins have arrived on Avon Circle!” (Avon Circle is the name of her street.)

“Neat,” I replied.

“Got here this morning!” she went on. “Just a huge flock! Well, that’s my news for the day!”

I wished I could drive over to her house and rejoice with her, but I was stuck in my office (in a dreary basement).


Mom in her yard

It was June of last year when Mom discovered her pawpaws. “Now when can I pick ‘em?” she asked me. “They’re just as green as can be.”

“Um, I’m not sure,” I said. “I know they get kind of yellow and speckled when they’re ripe, kind of like a banana. But I’m not sure how long it will take.”

Mom went to Wisconsin later that month, to visit her brothers and sisters. It was a terrible trip. While she was there her brother David died, and then a few days after she returned home, she had a heart attack. By the time she got out of the hospital, her precious pawpaws had disappeared.

“I guess a raccoon stole them,” I said.

“And I never even got to try one!” Mom lamented.

But we haven’t given up.

Mom called me the other day (at work) to tell me that her pawpaw was blooming. “Just covered in blooms!” she said.

Two of my trees are blooming too.

Come summer, we might be rolling in pawpaws. Who knows?


A couple little flower buds on one of my trees


Flower fully open. The flowers usually hang down bell-like, but I turned this one over so you could see the inside.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Noble Beech

For beauty and wildlife benefits, American beech (Fagus grandifolia) is a tough tree to top. Sure, it's slow growing and just a little bit finicky, but this is a tree so noble, stately, and giving that it's well worth the trouble and the wait. It grows up to 100 feet high and wide, lives as long as 400 years, and provides food and shelter for everything from caterpillars to black bears.

Aside from sheer grandeur, American beech's chief ornamental feature is its uncommonly thin, smooth, silver-gray bark, which never roughens or thickens even in old age. This beautiful, unusual bark makes for easy identification. American beech was the first tree I knew as a kid. My sisters and I were lucky enough to have near our neighborhood an old and undisturbed forest of beeches, big enough to get lost in. The massive trunks wrapped in pale gray bark made us think of great stone castles or herds of elephants.

Fall was our favorite time to visit the beech woods. In North Florida, most trees don't really color in autumn, but beeches are the exception, turning bright yellow and amber. The combination of silver trunks and golden leaves made our forest seem enchanted, full of the potential for magic and adventures. As the leaves dropped, the winding paths between the trees (and our little curving creek) became as yellow as the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz.

Fall is definitely American beech's showiest season, but the tree is lovely all year round. Dry, clinging leaves decorate most trees, especially young ones, throughout the winter, and long, cigar-shaped buds appear. When the buds open in spring, the new leaves are a dazzling gold-green and so soft they seem almost liquid. Summer foliage is dark blue-green and provides lavish amounts of cool shade. A beech leaf is a very neat, symmetrical thing. Oval-shaped and paper-thin, it measures about 4 or 5 inches long and has a sharply pointed tip, perfect parallel veins, and saw-toothed edges.


Winter leaves


Spring leaves

The leaves nourish the larvae of the Luna moth. Curled, clinging winter leaves are cozy hiding spots for spiders, and excellent foraging spots for chickadees, titmice, and wrens. American beech is an incredible wildlife tree. Hollows in old beeches provide shelter and nesting spots for owls and bats, and sweet, oily, protein-rich beechnuts are a primary food source for more than 30 species. Beechnut fanciers include wild turkeys, wood ducks, red-bellied and redheaded woodpeckers, common grackles, white-tailed deer, gray squirrels, and chipmunks. In fall, when the pea-sized nuts are in season, they can make up half of a black bear's daily diet.

Beechnuts were also one of the main foods of the now-extinct passenger pigeon, and as late as the 1850s, sky-blackening flocks of these rosy-breasted, blue-winged birds descended on America's beech forests to feed. "It was upon the mast of Beech nuts that the great flocks fed," Donald Culrose Peattie writes in his classic A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America, "and their seeming migration was more exactly a quest, by the million, for the rich harvest of the Beech." Once vast, the beech forests had been largely replaced by farms by the end of the 19th century. "As much by the disappearance of the Beech mast as by mass slaughter," Peattie writes, "were the shining flocks driven to extinction."

American beech is native to eastern North America, from Canada to northern Florida, and is found in moist, well-drained woods. If you're lucky enough to have an American beech on your property, protect it. Trees are easily damaged by drought, poor drainage, and any disturbance to the root zone. American beech is particularly sensitive to the soil compaction and grade changes that often accompany construction projects. If you'd like to establish a beech in your yard, remember that young trees require some protection from the hot summer sun. The ideal soil is loose, rich, evenly moist, and well drained, with plenty of leaf mold. Plant an American beech and do the people and the wildlife of the future a favor.


Sophie and Amanda, in 2008, sitting in the beech tree behind our garage


Another climber in the beech. Mom made this little fellow for me for my birthday.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Friends



I’d like to tell you about a heartwarming friendship between two cats. It began six years ago, when we adopted Carl, our little brown tabby.

Carl was a kitten, maybe three months old at the end of 2008. He showed up one cold December day in the company of our neighbor DeVante, who was about 10 back then. They’d met up in the street somewhere and had spent the day together. Carl was the cutest kitten I’d ever seen—round-headed and upbeat and ridiculously cute. He had such sparkle, such star power, I kept saying he reminded me of Shirley Temple. We all thought he was a girl, and DeVante was calling him Daisy, which was a fine name, I thought, for such an innocent, sunny little being.

When DeVante went home that day, “Daisy” followed him. But when night fell, the kitten came back—alone—and cried at the door. Rob and I weren’t really in the market for a new pet in those days because our beloved cat Pittle was sick and dying and we were trying to nurse her. But we let the kitten in anyway, even though we were too sad to really enjoy any kitten antics.

About a year before that night, we had adopted another stray kitten, a temperamental tortie we named Buntin. Buntin was needy. Buntin was easily offended. She was lonely and had no cat friends because she growled and hissed and charged at everyone she ever met.

Enter Carl. (We soon discovered he was a boy and changed his name.) Carl didn’t care if Buntin growled and hissed. No, it was music to his ears. He was fascinated by her and followed her everywhere. Even though we had four other cats, he chose her for his attentions. He’d roll around and try to look extra cute for her, making bunny paws and puppy eyes. He persisted, until finally he began to get results.

Buntin and Carl became friends around the kitchen table. Buntin would sit on top of the table, and Carl would run around on the bench below and bat at her. Then Buntin would start running and batting too. It was the funnest game, and they would play it every day for hours. Next they started chasing each other around the house, and wrestling in the bathtub. But what Buntin—loving, insecure, lonely Buntin—really wanted to do was lick and groom Carl. She wanted to baby him and take care of him, and she’d feel very betrayed if she was licking him and he tried to start wrestling and having fun. She’d run off in a huff and pout.

But Carl didn’t mind. As Rob would say, “Carl understands that’s just Buntin being Buntin.”

Carl never took offense when Buntin was moody, when she got mad at him for no good reason. When she was jealous. Impatient. When she lashed out.

And so these two cats remain best friends to this day. It’s always the same between them. Buntin will sit and lick Carl and tend to him, shower him with affection, but then somehow she’ll get her feelings hurt and run away, hissing. And Carl will have to win her heart all over again. He’ll have to roll around and make his best bunny paws.

It’s always so mysterious—the beginning of things. Where did Carl come from? And how did he find us just when we needed him most?