Monday, December 28, 2009

A really good reason to get out of bed in the morning.

Of the many food-related things to love about December (constant stream of desserts in the office breakroom, having to “use up” leftover eggnog as a coffee creamer) none can compare with the onset of grapefruit season. Texans take this treasure for granted since we enjoy low prices (3/$1 sometimes!) due to our proximity to the Valley. I have met many a Northerner who professes to hate grapefruit, having only ever tasted the sour pale yellow cousin of our ruby reds.

We have the inspirational work of horticulturists to thank for this treasure. While you and I are plying our serrated spoons in pursuit of the juice, growers are busy testing budwoods and exotic rootstocks (Cleopatra mandarin, Swingle citrumelo) in hopes of creating better fruit with greater disease resistance (citrus tristeza virus, while having a romantic name, is not good).
Of the 34,000 acres under citrus cultivation in the Texas Valley, 72 percent are grapefruit groves. Frankly, I believe it should be 100 percent. We can get oranges from Florida. From now until March, if you see a middled-aged woman staggering away from the HEB with what appears to be sacks and sacks of softballs, that’ll be me getting my Rio Star fix. I recommend only buying the small variety. Look for fruit that is “heavy in the hand” and skin that is shiny or almost oily for maximum sweetness and juiciosity.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Portraits: Shrimps and Pansies

Surely there was never a plant so aptly named. I have waited two years for Justicia brandegeana to flower and for some reason only during the last month has it finally got up a head of steam. So assuming that the freeze will kill it off, I spent the last warm afternoon attempting to paint this complicated bloom. This particular variety even has whiskers like a shrimp.

I have several terracotta wall pots from my mother's garden that get filled with seasonal color. When I'm at my kitchen sink I see these pansies and think of her. She loved pansies and named one of her cats after this flower. I love these purple faces with their yellow dot.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Merry Christmas Thoughts

“It is only to the gardener that time is a friend, giving each year more than he steals.”
Beverley Nichols, Merry Hall

Just finished this famed garden memoir by Beverley Nichols, which falls on many people’s lists of favorite garden books of all time. This Zelig-like writer flitted in and out of politics, celebrity, and journalism during pre/postwar Great Britain, and somehow found time and money to garden like a crazed Johnny Appleseed in series of homes in the English countryside. Merry Hall is an account of the years he lived in a run-down Georgian manse surrounded by five acres where he torched unwanted shrubs, felled mature trees he deemed ugly—and then replanted forests of trees, lilies, roses, and more trees. He apparently did no work himself, preferring to direct gangs of workers and his fulltime gardener, a man of almost mythical horticultural skills named Oldfield. To read the book is to take an amiable meander through the garden with this interesting man, stopping for a moment in the greenhouse, witnessing hilarious drop-ins by eccentric neighbors and the antics of his two cats, and listening to Nichols natter on about his love for lilies. There’s a terrible poignancy about the whole book as well, embodying as it does a world now vanished, where infallible gardeners, faithful valets, and unimaginable real estate economies existed.

Do NOT turn your back on that weeping willow!

Fascinating story by the always-readable NYT science writer Natalie Angier on the consciousness of plants yesterday. As an unrecalcitrant meat-eater who can't understand this reductio ad absurdism of what to eat and not eat (how about air? can we eat air?), it just confirms my own suspicions that plants can and do scream when under attack by Woman-With-Shears or the hungry caterpillar. Some of the aggressive actions taken by plants as reported in this story are downright spooky. If the ficus I'm currently training as a topiary ever gets it phototropic/cellular shit together, I may be in for trouble.