Monday, January 31, 2011

The Tree Year: Bark Life Part I

"Those who have ventured beyond the great North Woods, out on the arctic prairies, where all the rivers fall into the polar sea or Hudson Bay, tell us of the surprising beauty of the isolated groves of Balsam Poplar there. How fair it must look then is something we can hardly realize when we encounter this species in the United States, for even when it is a fine tree…it is still a forest tree, crowded upon by others…" ~Donald Peattie, A Natural History of Trees

I spent some time in the park on Saturday observing my trees. This time I got up close and personal with them examining the colour and texture of the bark.
There's so much going on with this balsam poplar.
I love the blue and gold lichens growing all around the trunk.

This tree bears some cool looking scars where chunks of deeply fissured outer bark have broken off.

This deep orange streak is interesting.

Balsam poplars are often planted in parks because the upper branches are attractively smooth and pale coloured and the trees give off a lovely smell when the buds open in the springtime, due to the high resin content and other constituents in the buds. This is what also give the buds their medicinal properties.

Poplars are fast growing, cold-hardy trees. They are the northernmost occurring trees of all The North American hardwoods. They require a lot of sunshine and like wet areas but can get by in drier soil. As a timber tree they are valued for use in making plywood, wafer board, veneer, pulp, and in construction. There is potential to use these trees in soil stabilization projects as well.

In the wild, balsam poplars are eaten by moose, deer, and snowshoe hare in small amounts, with moose stripping bark in times of winter food shortage and used by beavers for food and building materials. Other animals browse balsam poplar like some rodents, elk and ruffed grouse. From what I've read, it's mostly the twigs and stems that are eaten. The leaves are eaten less and the resin in the buds is a deterrent to snowshoe hares.

Next up, I'll post the catalpa pics I took...

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Winter Sown

Last night, with a glass of wine and a soundtrack that included this bit of dreamy awesomeness,

I winter sowed some seeds.

I started with just a few flats last year. Only the chamomile did really well. This year I'm trying again, sticking mostly to self-sowing natives and other hardy perennials that are well adapted to the climate, naturally drop their seeds in the fall, endure the long winter and germinate the following spring.

I suspect many gardeners would classify most of these plants firmly in the weed category and wonder why in the world I would go through the trouble of purposefully cultivating them. Well, as much as I love vegetable gardening, herbalism is fast becoming my first love, and these are all medicinal herbs. I am particularly hoping that the boneset and Queen Anne's Lace seeds I saved will be successful.

The blue boxes around the neighbourhood are an excellent source of mini greenhouses. Sadly, it's all too easy to fully equip myself with these takeout tubs. The roast chicken containers work great though. If I take care of them, I can keep them out of the waste stream for another couple of years and save myself the impact and money from buying seed starting trays.

The trays get thoroughly cleaned with hot, soapy water. I use hydrogen peroxide for good measure to prevent the spread of plant disease, mold and fungus.

Seeded, labeled, lidded and ready to go outside.

The next morning, already under a layer of snow.

Good luck little, baby seeds! I hope to see lots of you in the spring.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Hot July Sunshine and Warm Summer Rains

"The beet is the most intense of vegetables. The radish, admittedly, is more feverish, but the fire of the radish is a cold fire, the fire of discontent, not of passion. Tomatoes are lusty enough, yet there runs through tomatoes an undercurrent of frivolity. Beets are deadly serious."
~Tom Robbins

I pull the bag of cooked, frozen beets out of the freezer just before leaving the house on my errands for the day. They are the surplus that didn't get canned back in September when I put up 18 jars of pickled beets. The freezer was the quickest way of dealing with the surplus, and now four months later they are destined to become dinner.

When I get home I take out my soup pot, and start the onions and garlic cooking in some hot olive oil. I'm so pleased at how well the garlic we grew is holding up. There are still more than a dozen heads left, all in good shape. I like garlic. A lot. So I'm sure there will be a gap between the last clove used and the start of scape season. We doubled our planting this fall though, so with luck that gap will get smaller this year.

The beets go in next with some salt and a splash of red wine. Some for the cook, some for the pot. Thinking of how I can brighten up the natural, earthy flavour of the beets I open a jar of the pickled ones and fork half the jar into the pot and pour in a quarter of the juice. The sweet and sour of the sugar and vinegar add just the right amount of acidity to the whole, and I'm quite sure I'm on the right track here.

Wanting to keep things simple, my herb of choice for seasoning is dill seed. My garden grew a dill forest of its own accord and I didn't argue. I love plant volunteers and the tall, feathery fronds of aromatic green are easy to just let go and do their thing. As a consequence, I now have a lot of dill seed. But that's a good thing because I like dill. A lot. I put it in almost everything.

A few sample tastes and I leave everything simmer for a while, coming back later to puree it with an immersion blender. Done. I spoon a couple of generous ladlefuls into a bowl and top it with the best yogourt in the world. The result is rich and creamy, earthy, slightly sweet, slightly sour and all good!

I love that I'm still eating from the garden. It's in the minus 20s with the windchill outside, but inside I'm cooking with hot July sunshine and warm summer rains.

*For anyone who hasn't really eaten beets before, they are colourful on the way in and on the way out, so don't be alarmed by what you pass the next day!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Grow or die vs Grow and die

"Prosperity consists in our ability to flourish as human beings- within the ecological limits of a finite planet."
~Tim Jackson

I can't believe I missed this debate that happened in Ottawa last night! Oh well. I'll definitely have my radio tuned to the Ceeb on February 2nd when it's due to air. Meanwhile, I can watch Tim Jackson's TED Talk and read this article on Peter Victor.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Populus balsamifera and Catalpa speciosa

After giving it some thought, I've chosen one of the balsam poplars in the park next door, to observe for the year. I walk by it everyday, making it really easy to notice and track it through the seasons.

It's one of three poplars in the park and I'm looking forward to getting to know this one better.

It's already starting to develop buds! They'll be ready to harvest soon, though I doubt I'll be able to reach any on this tree, unless the wind blows off a branch or two.

While in the park I remembered the lovely catalpa tree growing across from the poplars and on a whim, I've decided to study it too!

I love catalpa trees. They are so exotic looking with their tropical looking leaves and orchid-like flowers. I only just learned recently that catalpas have medicinal uses too, which I'm excited to discover more about.

Stay tuned for more updates from the Tree Year!

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Tree Year

I noticed a few herb bloggers participating in The Tree Year.

The idea is to choose one tree near you that you can visit on a regular basis, get to know it better, observe any changes throughout the seasons and generally just notice the little things up close and personal. This sounds like a lovely compliment to my nature awareness practice I'm doing as part of my herbal studies, so I've decided to sign up!

Only trouble is, I'm having a hard time deciding on which tree to choose. I have four in mind. Balsam fir, white poplar, balsam poplar and black walnut. There are balsam poplar trees in the park next to my house, the white poplar and balsam fir are about a 10 min walk from my place, and the closest black walnut I know of on public property is in the arboretum about a 40 min walk from my house. I'll give myself to the end of this week to make a decision and then the fun begins!

Want to participate too? Get the details here. There is a Facebook page too.

Image source

Monday, January 10, 2011

DIY Herbal Pastilles

When I read this article on herbal pastilles a couple of months ago, I just knew I had to try making my own. I have to admit to coveting the suribachi that the author uses and I was thrilled to receive my own as a Christmas gift from the ADG! It's so pretty and works amazingly well for powdering herbs. I think it's the best mortar and pestle I've ever used.

Last night I made pastilles with sage, violet and marshmallow leaves harvested from the garden and dried last summer. I used a lovely, rich, local sunflower honey and a few dropperfuls of sage tincture for the liquid. I finished the pastilles off by rolling them in cinnamon. They taste yummy and I will use them to help heal and soothe sore throats.

This is such a fun and simple project and an easy way to use herbs. I've already made anti-inflammatory pastilles and have plans to make some for coughs and digestive complaints. I think this would be a really great activity to do with kids too. And the article gives other options for powdering herbs if you don't have a mortar and pestle, or you can buy the herbs already powdered.

Hmmm...Do I detect a dry, scratchy feeling in my throat? Why yes I think I do! Excuse me while I go take an herbal pastille. :)

Monday, January 3, 2011

Under the Tree

Happy New Year! I hope everyone had a lovely holiday season with family, friends and loved ones.

This is my mom's tree, beautifully decorated in white and gold. I really enjoyed wrapping my gifts to put under it, using pretty scarves gathered into a bow with an elastic. It's insanely simple, doesn't require anything disposable and looks very fancy!

And it's really easy to take it up a notch by slipping an ornament or little decoration into the bow, or using a bit of ribbon.

I've collected the scarves for some time, all secondhand, and I have quite a nice stash now in various sizes, that can be used for all occasions.

They are ideal to use when traveling, hardly taking any space. The wrapping goes so quickly, I leave everything unwrapped until I arrive. And since I see people over a period of a few days, as some gifts get unwrapped I reuse the scarves to wrap more.

It's so fun and easy I can't imagine wanting to use paper to wrap presents ever again!