Shouse Family Update

I went to see my friends, the Ester Shouse family, over the weekend. (I think I previously said they were in St. Clair County, they lived in Bates County, MO, in West Central MO, where I grew up). A couple of folks from our Friday night dinner group had given me checks to deliver to Ester and I wanted to see how she is doing. The lot where the house stood has been bulldozed and the old basement filled. The spot has been leveled and as soon as the ground settles enough, and the weather cooperates, the boys will be pouring a concrete slab. Radiant heat pipes are planned in the concrete for a circulating hot water heating system. The family decided that Ester doesn't need to be, (1) climbing stairs, thus no new basement (she had fallen twice in the past year on the old kitchen back steps and broken her arm) and (2) doesn't need to be filling a wood stove or furnace with wood. It's nice to see their progress and Ester said to say thank you to everyone who has sent checks. "We are so grateful. People have been so nice to us, please tell them thank you." I know for a fact they still need help with buying materials for construction, so if you feel like sending something, the address is posted on the previous posting about the fire. And thank you.

I just received this email from Dot in West VA, commenting on my article about Sumac in The Heirloom Gardener magazine and I just had to share it with you here:
Reading the article about zatar & sumac berries, I was reminded of the way our local 4-Hers use the berries to make
pink lemonade to sell at a local fair. It is always a very successful fund raiser! First, and very important: locate a wringer-type washing machine and clean thoroughly. Next, add a predetermined amount of sumac berry bunches, cleaned. Fill the tub with cold water and turn on the agitator. Let run until desired strength is obtained (usually several hours). Drain into clean containers and sweeten to taste. To my way of thinking, sumac lemonade is better than lemon lemonade! Plus, the kids have fun making it; they have a real sense of accomplishment and it doesn't cost a lot to do!"
Dot Montgillion, Owner,Smoke Camp Crafts, Past Pres WV Herb Assn.

And Marcia in North Carolina sent this, which I am anxious to try: "Try toasting the sumac berries like you would sesame seeds. They smell wonderful! Let me know what you think."

And the news from here is, I ordered my onion plants yesterday from Dixondale Farms. They are the only supplier of onion plants that will ship them to you when you want (instead of "shipped at the appropriate date for your area" which is useless for our area because they always ship 3 months too late). If you want great healthy plants, great selection and shipped when YOU want, try them.

The other news is Barbara brought along her AeroGarden for her stay here. I've not watched one in operation. It was her Christmas present from us last year and she says she's been enjoying growing herbs and lettuce. She planted lettuce seed 3 days ago and it is already 1/2 inch tall! It's an amazing machine, with a grow light on a timer, water and nutrients below and the lettuce grows in little pots that set just above the water. It is an an incredible system and she grows enough for her to have salads and lettuce on her sandwiches all winter long.


Flowerpot Christmas

Steve Bender, aka The Grumpy Gardener, suggested more information about greenbrier (Smilax rotundifolia) and reminded me there are some varieties that have less thorns. I have long thought this plant has strong merit as a landscape plant. Growing up, I really hated this plant because it was always ripping my clothes when I was hunting, or scratching my arms and legs as I ran through the edges of the woods looking for plants. But then I discovered how tasty the young growing shoots are, raw in a salad, or steamed with Italian dressing. Or in a quiche. Or fried, on a hamburger.

Greenbrier slowly became one of my all time favorite plants. Yes, it does have thorns. But it is tough, stays green for most of the year, will grow just about anywhere and is beautiful when allowed to grow up into a tree. Unlike roses, which also have tenacious thorns, greenbrier doesn't have to be coddled. I've seen it in northern Missouri in rich bottomland with leaves nearly as big as your face and very few thorns. The tough, leathery, shiny green leaves are quite stunning. It's not a plant you like weeding up your flower bed as it has deep roots and if you don't see it in time when you're weeding, you will let out a loud, "OUCH!" But in the right location, this is an amazing plant. Someone should hybridize or select out the better attributes of this plant as it has commercial value.

It's cousin, another Smilax is Sarsaparilla root (you know it as one of the ingredients in root beer), is a medicinal plant that is said to remove toxins from the bowels, reduce inflammation from the blood, urinary system, skin and liver. That's how root beer started out, as a good-for-everything tonic, then later evolved into being a soft drink. Sarsaparilla was the start of that, the cousin of our sometimes despised native greenbrier.

I almost forgot to post the photos of the flower pot nativity I found in Texas last summer. It was at a clay pot factory and I thought the animals were especially interesting. And the camel! All it needs is some greenbrier growing around the whole scene, but of course the flowerpot donkey would eat it! Wildlife loves greenbrier and so do I.

Happy Holidays, however you choose to celebrate them. We're getting freezing rain at the moment and there's a pot of vegetable soup simmering on the stove.


Winter Solstice, Winter Arrives

December 21, Winter Solstice, the first official day of winter. Brrrr. Isn't this the shortest day of the year? Or is it the longest because it's so cold? It's about 11 degrees or thereabouts here. But, hooray, sunshine, finally. In just a couple of weeks I'll be ready to plant onions and potatoes in the garden.

Regarding the blog comment left by, "Anonymous" about his/her parents growing up in western St. Clair County, MO....where? That's where I grew up! Taberville.
And a comment to the fellow who said,
"Ever wonder who the first person was to eat bitter gourd, and why?" Yes, I have, because it's so intensely bitter. Also wonder who was the first to take the dare to eat a raw oyster. I'm guessing it took a quart of something alcoholic for that first oyster. Barbara Young, Josh's mother, who is visiting us over the Holidays, is reading, Founding Mothers, The Women Who Shaped Our Nation by Cokie Roberts. Yesterday Barbara read a recipe to me from one of the books' chapters, on how to properly cook a calf's head, from an 18 th century cookbook. It took days of preparing, cooking, boiling, frying, stuffing with oysters, baking, saucing, until that calf's head was considered, "done." The bottom line is, I think we humans will eat anything that moves, or doesn't, grows or has hooves, paws, feet, fur, feathers or, even, bitter gourd. Thanks for all your comments! It made me think about plant names, like love -in-a-puff, which I mention below.

Because of my posting information about our friends, the Shouse family's loss of their home in a fire right before Thanksgiving, I've gotten acquainted by blog mail with a guy named Taylor, who was kind enough to pick up my post about the fire and post it on the blog at The Herb Companion magazine, which carries my Down to Earth columns in each issue. I check his blog often to see what craziness he's up to (he just started working for Ogden Publications, who publish Herb Companion, Mother Earth News, Grit and others). He posted a YouTube video he made of the Grit & Herb Companion staff decorating the office for Christmas. I've never seen some of those folks before even though I email them and talk with them on the phone as I write. If you'd like to see some of the folks I do business with, check it out. (The blooper video

Josh gathered some love-in-a-puff seed pods from the garden for Barbara's Christmas centerpiece arrangement. Ever wonder love in a puff (Cardiospermum halicacabum)has that name? Plant names always relate to something, kind of like names people give their pets. Like our friends, George and Pat, who named their new dog, a stray that showed up at their door...they named him, "Larry the Cable Dog." He has to be tied most of the time so he doesn't get run over (and because he was dragging home "gifts" like wrenches, a 20 lb. frozen turkey, etc.") It's a perfectly logical, and fun name. But people name their pets less creative names. "Bob" comes to mind. "Blackie" for a black cat; "Snow" for a white one.

Most plant names are there because of some trait or use. Bitter gourd is called that because it's a gourd, and it is so bitter you want to spit. So the name love-in-a-puff, comes not from the flowers, which are almost invisible, but from the seed. Little bb sized black seed with ...
drum roll please....a white heart on each one! Love....(a heart)...in a puff! In winter the seed pods fall from the vine and float in the wind for considerable distances. So the name comes from the black seed with the white heart on each one.

Yesterday I made a batch of pâté and Barbara filled gift jars with the mixture. I cooked up a batch of homemade Swedish hardtack crackers (from my book by that title, of course). We had our annual Friday night dinner group's Christmas party and everyone's gifts from us was a jar of pate, some homemade crackers and a little bag of spicy nuts for snacking. The party was fun and I was touched that friends gave me a donation to send on to the Shouse family for their construction supplies.

Molly, our Jack Russell, slept by the woodstove as we cooked during the day, then went out to the woodlot with Josh. She was in hot pursuit of a rabbit when she dove into a thicket of greenbriers, an especially tenacious vine with sharp thorns, but an also good edible native plant. She came out yipping and bleeding, having torn her ear on a thorn. She bled and bled - like cuts on ears can do. Not serious, but she looked a mess. She's better today but worn out from her ordeal. She's a hard-core hunter and not much slows her down but she's rather subdued today from her wound.

On the longest (or is it shortest) day of the year, depending upon your point of view and how much you like the cold of winter, I wish you a very happy holiday season.


Jumpin' Holly Berries, Santa!

Our not really grumpy friend, the Grumpy Gardener (aka Steve Bender, at Southern Living magazine) just posted information about one of my favorite winter plants, deciduous holly (Ilex decidua), also known to us Ozarkers as possumhaw. It's that red-berried tree you see along the edges of woods, in fencerows and deeper in the woods. It's a tough tree, grows in a wide range of conditions (from swampy, deep soil in West-Central Missouri, to the rocky bluff edges along the White River in the Ozarks). The trees are male and female, the females having the berries and this is a great addition to the home landscape. To read lots more about this fascinating tree, check Grumpy's blog posting. We have a male and a female possumhaw out near the road, next to the Long Creek Herb Farm sign and the berries have been outstanding this season. Mom used to cut limbs for decorating indoors around the Holidays when I was growing up. It prompted me to go outdoors and take a few pictures of our possumhaw, too.

Even with the temperatures hovering around 17 degrees F. today, the Oregon grape holly is in full bloom. Just 3 days ago when the air was in the 60s, there were bees busily visiting the flowers. Little grape-ettes will form in summer and they can be turned into jelly.

There's hardly any snow, a good thing as far as I'm concerned. Here on the front walk to our front door you can see just enough white stuff to show where the walkway boards are. The Oregon holly doesn't mind the temperatures and will be in bloom for weeks.

In spite of the cold, the larkspur seedlings are up and doing just fine. These are from seed that fell out when I harvested the larkspur last June. They, too, aren't bothered by cold weather. I am, however. Florida sounds awfully good about now!

Barbara Young, Josh's delightful mother, is visiting us over the Holidays and we put her to work immediately, picking out pecans from the Osage River pecans I got recently. The nuts are already cracked and she's picking out the goodies for the freezer. We're so glad to have her visiting from Geneseo, NY, where they really know what cold is all about.

And what a treat! Our friend, Olee Jobe, sent us home with fresh tomatoes from his greenhouse crop. These are Jet Star, Better Boy and a special greenhouse variety. He's experimenting with the crop and has some amazingly large plants. Olee's been pollinating them with a paintbrush and you can see the results on our windowsill. He and his wife, Sharon, have Spring Fever Greenhouse in Ozark, MO. We had tomato sandwiches for lunch with a bowl of vegetable soup, just right for a cold wintery day.


Snowflakes & Loofahs

Thank you to those of you who sent contributions to the Shouse family, and for all of the people who passed on the information to their churches and others. The help is very much appreciated.

We had snowflakes falling this week. I've always been told that, "no 2 snowflakes are alike, ever." Well, those weather people can't get the weather right most of the time, so I can't imagine why I believed that, "scientific fact" either. In this photo you can see the flakes are like they were cut out with cookie cutters. I took half a dozen photos of collections of flakes, all of them exactly like the others. "No 2 alike.." baloney.

I've been sorting seed and cataloging them for winter. Soon I'll post offerings of the Bhut Jalokia peppers on Ebay. I'll also offer other seeds including the achochas I keep mentnioning.

This week I harvested several of the luffa sponges, which were partly dried, and brought them indoors to finish drying. Under the wood stove, they will lose their moisture. Then I will walk on them to break the thin, brittle skins. Each gourd has a string between each ridge and those pull down like zippers and strip away some of the skin. Once the rest is picked away I'll shake the seed out and place several sponges in a cloth bag and run them through a beaching in the washer. When all finished, I should have a great collection of nice, natural, linen-colored sponges.

You may know this plant by some of its other names: Vining Okra, Sponge Gourd, Loofah, Dishrag Gourd, etc. When the fruit is small, about the size of a hot dog, it's cooked like okra. The best variety of luffa for cooking, as far as flavor, is the Thai or angled luffa. It has ridges instead of smooth skin, slightly tougher skin when dry, but just as easy to peel when mature.

I ran across a "new" ball loofah that is about the size of an egg. Also called hedgehog loofah, it's warty when green, but when it dries the skin and prickles fall off. This one can also be cooked and eaten but its real utility is in use as a small bath and beauty sponge. Rachel's Supply has those.

The photo of gourd varieties shows the sponge gourd, which is the smooth skinned variety, and the ribbed or angled gourd. In all, there are some 30 or more varieties of luffas, all of them producing various kinds of sponges. Some are fine grained, some coarse, but they all produce a useful and durable sponge.

We're expecting snow and/or sleet in the garden in the next few days. It may make kids happy for some extra no-school days, instead what it reminds me is there are $29 one-way tickets to Florida on Allegiant Airlines. Very tempting.