Thursday, February 13, 2014

Hearts Schmarts


    This week brings St. Valentine’s Day which has been so-named for a historically murky Catholic saint who was supposedly murdered (and not by Love) on this self-same day. In my opinion, this was not a very good way to start a holiday that celebrates romantic love. Being the skeptic I am, I also have to arch a brow in the direction of “romantic love” since that is a term strongly suggesting an unrealistic view involving desire, possession, and general human frivolity. (Imagine how fun I am at weddings!)

     I feel the same eye-rolling bemusement over the notion of the heart being the repository for our romantic emotions. To me, this is a strange denial of our most species-unique organ, the brain. We all know deep-down that the heart has nothing to do with emotions - it pumps blood. But I have gotten into arguments with people who are absolutely convinced that the heart has some control over our ability to “experience emotion”. These people get upset when you intimate that the brain is the actual seat of those “finer” feelings. The brain is a trouble-maker, I’ll readily admit, but it is also the three pounds of neurons that puts our world in some kind of order and allows us to fall in love, depending on mood, hormones, and financial status.  

     But here we are in a culture that expresses love by liberally posting heart-shaped emoticons via the Internet. Where is the brain emoticon? Are we so alienated by the very thing that enables us to build cities, launch rockets, cure disease, invent Snuggies, and deny reality in favor of “moonshine and magnolias”, that we can’t even honor it with an emoticon?  When did thinking become something shameful?

          Historically, the heart-shaped symbol that we learned to draw at a very early age - and that we now see plastered ad nauseam on anything we want to sell as sincere - had nothing to do with the organ that beats in your chest. Originally, the heart-shape was used to denote the botanical world, namely leaves. And because trees and vines were ubiquitous in most of the places that humans roamed, the heart-shaped leaf symbolized the natural bounty that nurtured all living things.  It wasn’t until the 12th Century, when the leaf symbol was transmogrified into a heart symbol (something inward and personal instead of outward and shared) by a religious European culture. (A great website to go to for this history: 

     Interestingly, it was during the 12th Century that the European folk tale Tristan and Isolde captured people’s imaginations. Undoubtedly you recall this story in detail, but allow me to share a brief sketch: 

     Isolde was a beautiful woman who was about to marry the uncle (who was rich and a king, naturally!) of Tristan. But a love potion (#9?) caused Tristan to fall in love with Isolde and, even though she got married to the kingly uncle, Tris and Iso had a torrid affair that, like all such things in life, was gloriously happy until ending in utter tragedy and the gnashing of teeth. The lovers died and were buried side by side. From out of the graves grew two trees that, over the years, twisted together to form one united tree.  Here was a story that conflated “eternal love" with enjoined trees. Alas, it wasn’t long though before botanic love was replaced by blood red hearts love. The heart, in turn, has been culturally fortified by hundreds of years of commerce.  Tsk! With a plant, at least, there is a direct connection to all life on earth that is plain to understand and demonstrate.

     So, by all means, celebrate your love ones this day. Buy them some chocolate and flowers (both items which might still suggest the early idea that connects our emotional needs with botany). And tell them you love them oh so much. One day, however, it would be nice if we could turn our red hearts back into green leaves while also giving a little more credit to the unsexy gray mass that resides in our heads for the emotions we feel.

     All I am saying, is give leaves a chance.

T. Stone

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Why Australia Day?

down under cropeedAustralia Day celebrates the landing of the First Fleet of eleven convict ships from Great Britain in Sydney Cove on January 26, 1788. Also known as Foundation Day, this national holiday celebrates Australia's first permanent settlement in what is now the city of Sydney.  

But why does Boyce Thompson Arboretum bother to celebrate this island country from the southern hemisphere, 7500 lonely ocean miles from the west coast of the U.S.? The answer, as you might expect, has everything to do with plants.

The tallest gum trees that you see dominating the skyline along the Main Trail--including our largest red gum tree, "Mr. Big"--were planted in the mid to late 1920s and early 1930s. As these trees grew, even more were planted, many with exotic-sounding names like tea tree, mallee, she-oak, ironbark, and gimlet. Over the years, these plants eventually formed a dominant forest canopy and understory that is unmistakably Australian. Volatile eucalyptus oil fill the warm air, and long sinuous strips of bark peal and pile at the base of every gum tree each summer, just as it does in Australia. Yet, as impressive as this eight acre collection of plants had become by the late 1980s, it had never benefited from a formal development and interpretive plan.

The answer, as you might expect, has everything to do with plants.       

In 1989, a landscape architecture firm was retained that specializes in exhibit development within botanical gardens. Over the span of nearly three years--with input from Arboretum staff and other experts--an exhaustive document was created that identified and described eight distinct Australian plant communities. Detailed plant lists were included for each community and authentic cultural amenities added to augment the realism of the overall exhibit. Several Arboretum staff members spent three weeks in Australia in 1995 to see the country first hand and develop sources for wild collected seed that, once grown and planted, became the Mulga, Mallee, Shrubby Woodland, Blue Bush, and other plant communities that you see today. The Benson Outback Bridge across Silver King Wash, the Drover's Wool Shed, Papuana Pass, the Aboriginal Seep, and the Aussie Pavilion all sprang from this landscape plan (directly or indirectly), corroborated by hundreds of photos taken by our staff of the cultural landscapes in the outback of western and southeastern Australia.

With one of the finest Australian Desert exhibits in North America, we think it fitting to celebrate our version of Australia on the same day that the Aussies celebrate theirs (that is to say, on the Saturday that is closest to January 26).  So, for over 15 years, we've featured Australia's most famous musical instrument, the didgeridoo, along with the botany, food, lore, and culture of both indigenous and non-indigenous Australians on Australia Day. So say "g'day," and spend one Saturday a year down under--on top.   

Kim Stone

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Fleur-de-lis

The fleur-de-lis—lily flower in English—ranks up there with the Nike swish, the peace sign, and the one-finger salute as one of the most iconic symbols of all time.

From the scepters of kings eight centuries ago to the uniform patch of the City of Louisville swat team, it’s difficult not to find it incorporated somewhere in any locale with even a petit morceau of French history. It gets scuffed, scraped, and crunched on the helmets of the New Orleans Saints. It’s in all four corners of the Quebec flag and one corner of the flag of Montreal. A slightly modified version has been sewn on the uniform of every Boy Scout since 1919. And mother-of-pearl inlays of the fleur-de-lis are a common ornament on the peg heads of older Gibson guitars, banjos, and mandolins, though the French connection is more tenuous here.  

In the span of a year, I saw it as a formal topiary, sheared and shaped from grey Santolina chamaecyparissus at La Citadelle in Quebec City, and then again as another formal topiary created from European boxwood in front of George Washington’s stone greenhouse at Mt. Vernon.  A classic wrought iron fence would be incomplete without finial fleurs-de-lis crowning the top of each of the metal pickets, while living room curtain rods are just abrupt stubs without one attached to each end.  It also figures prominently in the tattooist’s repertoire.

From a botanical point of view, the fleur-de-lis looks much more like an iris than a lily, and some historians think that its origin is patterned after Iris pseudacorus, a common iris that grows in wetlands throughout Europe. All irises have the same basic flower structure, comprised of three upright petals (standards) and three sepals called “falls” that arch gracefully downward, the middle sepal often tongue-like. So, really, any local iris growing in the French countryside a thousand or so years ago could have served as the inspiration for the symbol.

Its significance begins with the French monarchs of the 12th century who considered the fleur-de-lis to be symbol of purity. For French rulers, it imparted a state of saintliness to their reign. Through the centuries, it has been incorporated into many coats of arms and flags, spreading throughout Europe and crossing the Atlantic with French settlement. The petals are thought to represent faith, wisdom and chivalry, with the religious context aligns them with the three parts of the holy trinity. The Boy Scouts added two stars, representing truth and knowledge, and gave each petal one of the three parts of the Scout Promise.

The fleur-de-lis is highly stylized, iconic, and instantly recognizable throughout the world. And while it will may never be as familiar as the almighty dollar ($) sign, or create the brand recognition of a bitten apple,  its plant-based design and rich, centuries-old history places it squarely in the world’s top ten enduring symbols.

Kim Stone

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Curing Green Olives with Lye

Ingredients and utensils for curing olives with lye:
·         A few pounds of fresh-picked green olives.
·         A small bottle of 100% pure lye (sodium hydroxide).
·         A quart of white vinegar.
·         Two containers of plain non-iodized salt.
·         Herbs and spices. (optional)
·         A couple of 2-gallon-sized plastic food containers with lids.
·         A plastic gallon-sized pitcher for measuring water.
·         Plastic measuring spoons and plastic stirring utensil.  (Never use metal containers or spoons when dealing with lye. Lye reacts to metal, especially aluminum, and is dangerous and potentially poisonous!)
·         A few small squares (12”) of clean cloth.

     For years I have lived in the vicinity of olive trees and yet have never cured olives. It seemed to be a complex, time-consuming affair and I didn’t personally know anyone who cured them. But this year, in early November, I noticed that here at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, our olive trees were loaded with fruit. Some cultivars had small olives, some had large. Most were green, although some were black. Why let them go to waste?  I started calling around for recipes and scanning the Internet for further information. Native food-expert Jean Groen even came out to Boyce Thompson Arboretum to give me a few tips.

     Unlike most fruit which you can easily make into jam or jelly, the fruit from the olive tree is incredibly bitter and must have unpalatable compounds, such as oleuropein, removed. (I can’t help but be curious as to what the evolutionary advantage is in having such a profusion of extremely bitter fruit. Are there any animals that eat these straight off the tree?)To remove these compounds you can use the tried and true way of soaking or covering the olives for weeks in salt or you can be fairly quick about it and use lye. (Dark olives are usually cured with salt and I’ll get into that in the next feature.)

Sometimes ya gotta take risks.
 The word “lye” should strike a note of concern among the literate, especially if one considers that there is a lye-based product called “Draino”, which should never be considered a kitchen condiment. Yet, 100% pure lye (sodium hydroxide) is precisely what is used in curing olives. My search for 100% lye took me away from the comfort of a grocery store, which had no lye (no lie!), to the well-lit aisles of an Ace Hardware store, which had what I needed.  There is something disconcerting about finding a substance you are going to use in food preparation in the plumbing section of a hardware store. And what made it all the more worrisome is that the small bottle of granulated lye had a bold warning of “poison!” emblazoned with skull and crossbones. I made sure that the ingredients said only “sodium hydroxide”. The skull seemed to be smiling at me. Should I smile back? Yes, yes I should.

      At the Arboretum, I carted a ladder out to the olive trees and started picking. I kept three olive varieties separated in three different baskets – large green, small green, and small black. After about an hour or so, I had easily collected around 3 or 4 pounds of large green olives, and a couple pounds each of the small green and black olives. I did not collect any olives that seemed too soft, wrinkled, or damaged in any way. You will note that in the photographs, the small green olives have just a little darkening…a blush if you will…while some of the small black olives have a little green on them. (Except with lye, I’m not much of a purist.)
The large green olives.
      So the segregated small and large green olives were rinsed. I had two large (two-gallon size) clean plastic storage containers (with lids!) and a one gallon pitcher to measure the water. Also, nearby I had a cup of white vinegar just in case I splashed myself with some of the concentrated lye solution. Apparently the vinegar helps render the lye less caustic. I will point out here that various publications suggest you wear some safety glasses and a long-sleeved shirt while preparing the lye.  Do keep a sample raw olive of each kind OUT of the lye bath as you will want to compare the color of a treated olive with that of a raw one. 

     The recipe called for one gallon of cold water (not warm!) in a plastic container. Never use metal pots to hold the lye water, especially aluminum, which would basically poison you. So, use food grade plastic which means any plastic container you can store food in. Use a measuring spoon, again PLASTIC not metal, and measure out 3 tablespoons of lye granules to the water. This is the potentially most dangerous part of the operation so don’t be splashing the water when you add the lye. When the lye has been added to the water, use a plastic or wooden spoon to slowly and carefully stir the lye until it’s completely dissolved in the water. The lye will warm up the water a bit, so wait a few minutes before putting the olives in. Once the lye has been thoroughly mixed, the solution is not nearly as deadly because the lye has been diluted. You still shouldn’t splash the water on yourself, but you should also not freak out if it gets on your hands. Simply pour a little of that vinegar on your hands and rinse it off. 

     Carefully add the olives without splashing too much. Remember that you want to keep the olives segregated by size. You don’t mix little olives with big olives because they cure at slightly different rates. In my case, the small olives went into one container, the big olives into another. The olives will tend to float at first so take a scrap of clean cloth and place it on top of the water. It will keep the olives submerged. Once the olives and covering cloth are in the lye bath, put the lid on the container and ignore it for a few hours. After, say, 5 hours, take a plastic (not metal!) mixing spoon and slide it under the cloth to stir the olives a little. You just want to be sure that all sides of all the olives are well-exposed to the lye bath. After this, cover the olives again. Let them soak in the lye bath for a total of 12 hours or so. After twelve hours you will want to remove an olive and slice a wedge out of it to see if the lye has penetrated down to the pit. Compare it to a wedge you cut out of the “sample” raw olive that you left out of the bath. It’s a bit difficult to tell because, no matter what, the olive “meat” next to the pit is always a bit lighter in color than the outer flesh. But you can see that all of the inner flesh is not white/green in color like a raw olive. Don’t stress too much about exact coloration next to the pit. The main thing is that you want to see some color differentiation compared to a raw olive. The idea here is to give the lye bath time to work its way down to the pit.

     Okay, in the case of my olives, 12 hours just didn’t seem quite long enough. The inner olive that I sampled out of the batch still looked too light.  That meant I had to create a whole new lye bath for both batches. And that meant I had to first mix another gallon of cold water with 3 tablespoons of lye. Once that was mixed, I drained the old lye bath off of the olives and quickly covered them with the new. One thing you don’t want to do is leave the olives uncovered by liquid for any length of time. By exposing the olives to air, they begin to turn dark. I don’t know if this affects the taste of the olives, but they tend to look bruised. So, allow very little exposure to air while you prepare a new lye bath.
The olives in the first lye bath.
     Once the olives have been covered with the new lye bath, check them once every 4 hours. Again, by “checking on them”, I mean you remove a sample olive and slice a wedge out it to check on the inner flesh. Then toss that sliced olive in the garbage. Oh, and don’t even think about tasting it straight out of the lye bath! With my olives, I waited another 8 hours (for a total of 20 hours) before emptying the lye bath of the small olives and then covering them with plain cold tap water for soaking. The larger green olives stayed in the lye bath for a total of 24 hours. After I was satisfied that the olives had been lye-cured through and through, I poured the lye down the sink drain and covered the olives with cold tap water. Then, three or four times a day for the next 5 days, I poured off the “old” tap water and replaced it with fresh tap water. The water draws off the lye. You will see that for the first couple of days, the water will quickly grow cloudy and brown. But by the fourth or fifth day, the water will remain clear. You want to keep changing the water until it no longer gets cloudy and stays clear. Am I clear about that? 

You can see the inner flesh will always be lighter.
     After approximately 5 days, when the water stays clear, prepare a gallon of brine. This is where the salt comes in. Combine one gallon of cold water with ¾ cup of non-iodized salt. Mix it thoroughly and then pour it over the freshly strained olives. Again, you might want to put a clean cloth scrap on top of the water to hold down any floating olives. Let the olives soak in that salt solution for one full week.

     There are a couple of things to note here. First of all, allow the olives to soak in this brine solution somewhere cool and out of direct sunlight. Second of all, after two or three days, open the lid and peer in. Do you see any mold? If you see a little mold, spoon it off the surface. If you start seeing a lot of mold, the batch of olives may be contaminated and you will have to discard it. In my olives, there was no mold whatsoever.

     After a week of the first brine solution, prepare a new gallon of brine, but this time you are using a full cup of non-iodized salt. Mix it well. You can even throw in some dry herbs or pepper or mustard seeds. When this new heavier brine is made, pour off the old brine and pour in the new. You can also go ahead and taste your first beautifully cured olive. Deeelish! With the new salt bath, let the olives soak for one more week. Do keep your eye out for any weird moldy growth. If you’ve been clean in your preparations and have not exposed the olives to too much air, you shouldn’t have much of a problem with mold. Like I said, I had no problem at all and you probably won’t.

     After that second week of brining the olives, they are ready to keep refrigerated in smaller jars of brine for a couple of months. They are perishable now and should be eaten over the next few weeks. Give any excess amount to friends who will, undoubtedly remember you in their wills. 

     Finally, if the olives are too salty for your taste straight out of the brine, you can soak a few for an hour to remove much of the salt. But if you do that, those olives need to be eaten within a couple of days. Without the salt, they won’t stay preserved for any length of time. What I do is soak the olives in water for an hour, drain the water, and then stir in a little olive oil and Balsamic vinegar. Tasty!

The end result after three weeks.

written by T. Stone