from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
November 10, 2002
ON THE PLEASURES OF SIMPLE TASTES
During the recent visit with my family in Kentucky I was regaled with several sumptuous meals which included such dishes as an apple salad with walnuts and honey, gooey pimiento cheese, and sweet banana bread. After a full year of hermit fare based on cornmeal, flour, oatmeal, vegetable oil, vinegar, and what I gather from the forest and gardens, the tastes of these aunt-made and grandmother-made foods were nothing less than explosive. Also I drank store-bought herbal teas with industrial-strength flavors.
The curious thing is that after three days these tastes did not please me. In fact, the constant presence of rich food began to bother me. My eating and drinking became like an addictive experience with gross superficiality, like being at the circus too long.
In regular life I delight in the taste of a freshly pulled raw carrot, a hot piece of cornbread smelling of simple cornmeal and hot oil, the mysterious astringency of an omelet based on a certain mushroom. When a meal consists of simple elements you have put together yourself, every swallow has a meaning. It's not hard to make the connections between what you are eating, and Nature and human society in general. There was corn growing, people harvested it and ground, packed and sold the grain, and now you eat it. There was a carrot, you pulled it from the ground and now you eat it. The sun radiated energy that flowed through space, bathed the Earth, the corn and carrot used that sunlight energy to convert air, water and nutrients into substance, and now you eat that substance. One eats with feet flat on the ground, in a knowing communion with the Universe's broad patterns.
Because of that time with rich food, this week I began feeling the need for some kind of inner cleansing. I know that it's silly, but somehow my insides felt gummy with too much sweet, salty and greasy stuff. Wednesday I realized what I needed: I needed a good hot mugful of Mexican Tea.
The plant known as Mexican Tea, CHENOPODIUM AMBROSIOIDES, appeared without invitation in one of my gardens, and I let it grow, as often I do with interesting visitors -- "weeds." By summer's end it stood four feet high (1.2 m) and was a handsome plant. Many times this summer when passing by it I'd crush a leaf between my fingers and sniff the powerful odor, then chew on the extraordinarily bitter pulp. The plant is native to tropical America but now it grows throughout much of North America, as far north as Wisconsin. You can see sprigs of Mexican Tea at http://club.euronet.be/luc.pauwels/ChenAmbr.JPG
Mexicans know this plant's medicinal value, as US country people also once did. My wonderful book "Las Plantas Medicinales de México" by Maximino Martínez claims that the herb cleans out the lungs, helps digestion, soothes toothaches, and ameliorates nervous conditions in general. The main medicinal use, however, is against intestinal roundworms. The plants contain an alkaloid called Chenopodine, which induces roundworms to release their hold on intestinal walls and pass from the body.
Actually there are different varieties of Mexican Tea and among the varieties exist various "chemotypes." Two chemotypes may look exactly the same but because they contain different chemicals they may smell or taste different. A variety of Mexican Tea with larger leaves is preferred for use as seasoning, while another with reduced leaves is mainly medicinal. Among the various chemotypes is one with a citrus odor -- something hard to believe if you've ever smelled what's in my garden! The one in my garden is the kind used medicinally, sometimes named "variety anthelminticum," "anthelminticum" meaning "against worms."
Anyway, I was feeling syrupy inside so on Wednesday I picked some sprigs of Mexican Tea, put them in a pot of water and brought it to boiling over my campfire, drank a steamy mugful and -- though surely it was purely psychological -- felt better immediately!
BLUE VIOLETS WITH CLOSED-UP FLOWERS
Another "weed" in my garden doing something special right now is the Common Blue Violet, VIOLA SORORIA. This is a spring-flowering species but right now it produces an eye-catching bouquet of thick, shiny, dark-green leaves that are so succulent they are fine to add to salads. If you get down on your hands and knees and poke among the leaf cluster you'll find some three-cornered fruit-capsules, plus something that looks like a flower that hasn't managed to open up.
And that's exactly what it is -- a special kind of flower found among some violet species, a flower that never opens. Technically it's referred to as a cleistogamous flower, from the Greek "kleistos," meaning "closed." You can see a picture of a violet's cleistogamous flower just as it looks in my garden at www.americanvioletsociety.org/Violet_Gazette_Sample/Images/Figure1.2.jpg
Violets with cleistogamous flowers are among the few kinds of flowering plants producing seeds both in a sexual (through pollination) and an asexual manner. Since these cleistogamous flowers never open, pollinators can't reach them, so the flowers self-pollinate. Self pollination is less desirable to a plant than cross pollination since in self pollination genes aren't mingled and thus evolution is hindered. However, in general there aren't many insect pollinators that visit violets, and these days there are hardly any. Therefore, from the violet's point of view, producing self-pollinated blossoms is better than just having regular blossoms which may never be pollinated at all. Besides, next spring there'll be plenty of regular blossoms and pollinators.
If you find a violet with fruit pods, take a close look. When the three-cornered pods of some violet species mature and dry, they squeeze the seeds inside them so hard that the seeds squirt from the pods like marbles shot from between pinched-together fingers. Seeds have been documented flying for a distance of over 15 feet (5 m)! This "ballistic scattering" occurs only at a specific time in the pod's development and takes place only over an hour or so.
When people in town leave large plastic bags of lawn leaves along curbs for pick-up by the city, sometimes the plantation manager takes a trailer into town, drives around and collects all the bags she can, then I dump them on the gardens as mulch. When I can get all the leaves I want I cover the winter garden nearly knee deep with leaves. In spring, wherever I dig up the soil for planting, I work the leaves into the soil. By August nearly all signs of leaves have disappeared -- have turned into organic matter, thus enriching the soil and improving its texture.
Another benefit of this practice is that often along with the leaves people inadvertently send us bulbs, tubers and rooting stems of horticultural species they've discarded. When spring comes, you just never know what will be sprouting from our imported leaf-mulch.
This year we were surprised by a number of Elephant Ears, which eventually grew to about 7 feet high (2.1m), and some giant Four-O'clocks, just as tall. We also got some pretty Amaryllises and hundreds of Ginkgo seedlings!
Last year a number of sprouts came up that at first looked like some kind of ornamental poplar. The sprouts quickly grew into pretty trees with dense, triangular, yellow-green leaves on long petioles, which quaked nicely in the breeze. In these two years they've grown to about 15 feet tall (4.5 m), so I'd been thinking we had a fine tree for planting somewhere.
But then Friday I was walking in the woods and discovered a cluster of trees of the same species. They'd clearly grown there for many years, taking over a small part of the woods. Spotting some branches bearing fruits, I knew instantly that the trees weren't poplars. The fruits were black capsules about the size of marbles, divided into three chambers, and each chamber held one large seed. The seed was black but covered with a thick, white, waxy substance. I could scrape the wax off with my fingernail exactly as if it were the wax covering store-bought cheddar cheese.
With the fruit I knew instantly that this was a member of the Euphorbia Family, the family in which you find Poinsettias and Castor-beans (Mole Plants). Knowing the family, back in the trailer with my books it was easy to figure out what it was. It was the Chinese Tallow-tree, also called Vegetable Tallow, SAPIUM SEBIFERUM. This was a new tree for me, and thus a real red-letter day. I could hardly wait to Google it.
The first Web page Google came up with told about the plant's many uses. Originally from China, the tree was introduced into the US because it was valued for its seeds as a source of vegetable tallow, a drying oil and protein food, and as an ornamental. The Chinese traditionally had a multitude of uses for the seeds and wood, including the practice of placing a certain insect on the tree to feed. The insect would lay its eggs in the seed and the resulting larvae would twitch inside the seed so violently that "jumping beans" would result. There's more about the tree's uses at www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/duke_energy/Sapium_sebiferum.html
The next Web page Google came up with was from the University of Florida and it said that the species "grows and spreads rapidly, is difficult to kill, and tends to take over large areas by out-competing native plants. Chinese tallow is spreading rampantly in large natural areas." The main focus of this page dealt with how to kill this "invasive non-indigenous species." You can see this page at http://aquat1.ifas.ufl.edu/sapium.html
So, there you have it. A species that's highly honored in one part of the world becomes a villain in another, and can even confuse a poor hermit-naturalist. With global warming, maybe it will eventually become rampant here, as it already has in some spots in Florida. I think that instead of planting my sprouts I'll dig them up and chop them to pieces.
You can see a rather dark picture of the black fruits opening to reveal seeds inside covered with white wax at www.csdl.tamu.edu/FLORA/hdwimages1/hdw038701.jpg
During the two weeks I was away everything here changed. When I left, things here still felt summer-ragged, jungly and humid, snakes were everywhere, and the nights were still raucous with katydids and mosquito buzzings. Now it feels like a different world, and I feel almost cheated that I wasn't here to keep track of the threads of each metamorphosing moment.
Friday was so pretty I just had to turn off the computer and take a walk. It seemed that our landscape had somehow simplified during my absence. Where just recently haze and shimmering heat had animated the air, and you couldn't see anything without sweat stinging your eyes, now all was clear and crystalline, subdued, cool and quiet. Now there were no snakes, and few insects and spiders. Shadows were black and crisp.
In fact, the landscape was like a picture in a child's book: Green Earth, blue sky with white clouds. Just that, those three simple elements produced before me with no comment. Even the white clouds possessed no gray bottoms. It was a construction-paper landscape concocted with round-pointed scissors and stuck together with white paste.
But, of course, I exaggerate. There was a crow there, too, caw-caw-caw black silhouette overhead enraged with my passing, and in the pond there was even a Red-eared Turtle with his poked-from-the-water head striped green and yellow, and I could see his sunlight-glowing legs spraddled beneath the water's surface, for after these rains the water was high and clear.
Well, it's true that the world appears to change according to the mind you view it with. One moment you find nothing but simplicity and elegance, and thoughts blossom as Haiku, but then the mind inevitably starts digging and wondering about all sorts of complexity and ornamentation, and before you know it the world is like a Wagnerian opera.
Maybe the nights have changed most of all. The main difference isn't with the temperature, but rather that now there are so few mosquitoes that you can sit outside and look at the stars. I haven't been able to do this since early last spring. In summer at night you simply have to keep moving or the mosquitoes overwhelm you, and you can't forget about West Nile Disease, either.
But now at dusk there's Cygnus overhead as the stars emerge, Cygnus the swan with the star Deneb forming her tail, and as Deneb sparkles from 650 light-years away, the bats escape from my cistern into a night smiling with a whole new manner of being.
Go to the Newsletter Index Page