Thanksgiving Traditions

In keeping with what I did for the week approaching Halloween, I thought I’d talk about some of the aspects of gardening and harvest that have to do with Thanksgiving–since some of the first Thanksgivings were primarily celebrations of the harvest, at least if we recall our history.

Grammar school taught us that the “pilgrims” and the “indians” got together that first Thanksgiving  to celebrate the harvest.  Current historical research indicates that not only were the colonists at the Massachusetts Bay Colony probably not the first to celebrate Thanksgiving, but that it was also a partially religious feast as well–remember, those colonists came here to celebrate their religion as much as anything else!

Nevertheless, this rendition of Thanksgiving from is probably the closest re-telling of the Thanksgiving story to the one I remember from school–the one about the colonists almost starving to death and then finally getting a good harvest and the “Indians” bringing corn to share with them and the feast lasting for 3 days.

To me it tells of rare cooperation between the settlers and the native people–as well know, it didn’t go well for the Native Americans for much longer after that.  So for that reason alone, I like this version of the Thanksgiving tale, sanitized, white-washed and fictionalized as it may be.

In fact this story is probably as fictionalized as the Norman Rockwell type Thanksgivings we see in the commercials and magazines.  After all, our own families rarely approach that sort of ideal.  But I’m not sure that’s what the holiday is all about either.

And even though my own harvest wasn’t fabulous this year, there is still much to be grateful for.  To me, that is the true meaning of Thanksgiving.

The Snowbirds

For those of you that don’t live in Florida, the concept of the “snowbird” may be a little bit unfamiliar.  If you’re a birder, however, perhaps not.

The “snowbird” refers to a bird I grew up knowing as the slate colored junco.  I think it now goes by the dark-eyed junco–if they haven’t changed the names again.  In birding, just like in the plant world, names can and do change.

I have fond memories of this bird because I think it’s the very first one I grew up learning the “proper” name for (and of course I don’t mean the latin name for–I still know very few of those because thankfully it’s not like the plant world–you don’t need to learn the latin names!)

My dad hung a wooden feeder on an old sycamore tree one winter in the first house I ever lived in –I was probably 6 or 7–and for some reason the juncos are the birds I remember at that feeder.  I can’t tell you what we were feeding–it wasn’t like today where you can buy 5-10 different seed mixes almost anywhere you go and easily double that in a specialty catalog.  So it was probably something generic labeled “bird seed” that had too much of the wrong kind of millet in it and that’s what all the juncos were doing beneath the feeder.

In any event, I mention the juncos as snowbirds because a popular saying has it that when the juncos arrive, the first major winter storm is 6 weeks away–that’s how they got their name the “snowbirds.”

Since the juncos arrived at my house on November 6, my first major storm should be December 18–a little later than normal but that’s fine with me.  The juncos were 1-2 weeks later to arrive this year, but our first frost was a full month behind schedule (and I am not complaining–do not mistake this for complaining!)

My birds quite often can predict the weather much better than the meteorologists, flying in to completely empty the feeders 24 hours before a big storm.  We’ll see how the juncos do on long range forecasting!

Squirrels’ Nests

There are few good things about the season of death and dying, as I think of this season between autumn and the prettier time of winter when snow covers the ground (if snow covers the ground.)

One of the advantages of “naked trees”, however, is the ability to see what’s been hidden all summer.  That usually means obvious things like birds nests and squirrels nests but if you get right up to the bark you can often see tiny insects and spiders sheltering there as well.

I read recently that for my part of the country at least the higher up in a tree a squirrel builds its nest the worse a winter it will be.  What do you think these squirrels are trying to tell us?  Better break out the woolies I guess.

Garden Blogger’s Muse Day

Oh when The Saints

Go marchin’ in

Oh when the Saints go marchin’ in

I want to be there in that Number

When the Saints go marchin’ in.

Well, that’s the version I know anyway–apologies to all of you from New Orleans who might know something different.  But since this is November 1, and in my tradition it’s All Saints Day, I thought I’d combine Muse Day, with a few lyrics and even a little garden lore to talk about one of our garden saints, St. Fiacre.

I acquired my statue at the Philadelphia Flower Show back in the mid-90s.  He’s cast of some sort of metal so he stays out all year round–you can even see the chew marks on him where some critter or other thought he might he edible–go figure.

Why I chose to drag him around the Philly Flower Show with me I’m not sure because he’s no lightweight, but we’d taken the train in from NJ (I was with my parents) and when we went back to the station to take it home, there were a bunch of less than savory characters in the underground station.  My parents were reluctant to go down there and I finally persuaded them by saying if we had to we’d use Fiacre as a weapon!  Needless to say, we did not need to.

Fiacre’s story is in interesting one.  You can tell if you have the right statute (you often find statutes of St. Francis, for example) by the onions he’s holding.

Fiacre was supposedly an Irishman who sailed to France.  When he landed at  Meaux, he went to the bishop, Faro, and asked for a little land where he could live in solitude and pray.  Faro told him he could have as much land as he could clear in  a day.  Reports vary on how much he cleared, but it was supposedly acres and acres that he cleared by using the point of his staff.

One of the reasons Fiacre left Ireland for France was that his reputation as an herbal healer in Ireland was becoming so well known that he couldn’t get any time to pray–that was why he sought solitude in France.

As for his associations with onions, I’ve not been able to pin that down–but perhaps he’s holding garlic to ward off visitors!

Halloween and Related Garden Traditions

You may wonder what Halloween and gardening have in common besides, perhaps, the pumpkins.  There’s a lot more than you think.

Halloween is thought to have its roots in the Celtic festival of Samhain, a traditional festival that signified the end of summer and the end of the seaon of light and the beginning of the season of darkness.  Since until recently we changed the clocks in most parts of the US on Halloween weekend, that seems especially fitting!

To ward off the darkness, and the spirits that many felt might cross the barrier at this time, many carved lanterns out of turnips which were plentiful.  In the “New World,” pumpkins were more plentiful (not to mention being easier to carve!) so they became the halloween tradition that we know as today’s Jack o’ lantern!

When the Romans conquered the Celts, they brought their own traditions with them that paid homage to Pomona, the goddess of plenty.  Part of that ceremony included drinking cider and bobbing for apples–things many of us currently enjoy as fall-related or Halloween party fare!  Little did we know our traditions dated back to the Romans!

Other cultures also have remembrances that have to do with death and the dead at this time of year.  The Mexican Day of the Dead, which is both a memorial and celebration (if I understand it correctly) uses marigolds and other flowers in its remembrance of the ancestors.  I have previously discussed the significance of other flowers, specifically white and yellow mums, in connection with Asian mourning traditions.

The Christian tradition of All Saints and All Souls, while not specifically associated with any gardening traditions, comes from the pagan and the practice of souling, or way of remembering the dead.  It is  from this tradition that the carving of the jack o’lanterns emerged.  Another way was to bake little soul cakes–but that of course has nothing to do with gardening.

And did you ever wonder why they call it a murder of crows?   I’ll cover that in another post–but it is a spooky sort of Halloween thought to leave you with!

Names of the Moons

I talked on Monday about the full moon and how we hadn’t had a frost yet although it was the full moon.  There is a whole philosophy of gardening by the moon and planting with its cycles.  I don’t know that I subscribe to it–not that I don’t believe it in, necessarily; it’s more that my “modern day” schedule often doesn’t correspond to the moon’s.

The old Farmer’s Almanac will tell you which days are better to plant above ground or root crops, which days are better to mow to retard grow, and other useful planting information using the moon cycles.  It also tells the first and last frost dates for major cities.  And it give the names of the moons for the calendar year.

There are several different names for the various moons during the year depending on which source you consult.  Several Native American web site give the names in native languages as well.   The names are believed to come from the names the Native peoples gave the moons originally.

I thought it might be interesting to go through the names of the moons for a calendar year.  And if you wonder why I mentioned that it was a full moon and we hadn’t had a frost yet, we often have a frost around the full moon in October, if we haven’t had one previously.

I am taking my names from the web site I’ll put an asterisk (*) by the name I’ve always been familiar with.

January: Old Moon

February: Snow Moon*, Hunger Moon or Wolf moon

March: Sap Moon, Crow Moon*, or Lenten Moon

April: Grass Moon* or Egg Moon

May: Planting Moon*, or Milk Moon

June: Rose Moon, Flower Moon, or Strawberry Moon*

July: Thunder Moon*, or Hay Moon

August: Green Corn Moon*, or Grain Moon

September: Fruit Moon or Harvest Moon*

October: Hunter’s Moon* or Harvest Moon

November: Hunter’s Moon or Frosty Moon* or Beaver’s Moon

December: Moon Before Yule or Long Night Moon *

The second full moon in a single month is the Blue Moon–that’s where that expression comes from.  The next one occurs August 31, 2012.

And just FYI–the bright planet in the southeastern sky in the Northern Hemisphere right now is Jupiter.  Saturn will be up shortly.

Herbal Myths and Lore–Part 2

Continuing where I left off yesterday, I do have a few more herbs that I bring in for winter.

I over-winter bay (laurus nobilis) another herb revered by the ancients as a sign of honor, glory and greatness.  I’ve actually acquired 3 plants over the years and managed to make them all survive–a good thing, since it is considered extremely unlucky to have a bay plant die on you!

Since ancient times, great powers have been attributed to it, including protection from lightening, epilepsy and the devil. Such a noble herb hardly belongs in soups, sauces and stews, but that it where it finds itself in my kitchen–and probably in most people’s kitchens.

Lemon balm  (melissa officinalis) comes in as well, for winter teas.  While I still have it, I pair it with another lemon herb, lemon verbena (aloysia tripylla). The lemon verbena  quickly loses its leaves as soon as the sun porch drops below 50 degrees or so so then it’s just lemon balm and spearmint tea.

Lemon balm is another ancient herb.  It may be mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey and it surely was used by Pliny the Elder who noted that bees preferred it to other plants (reason enough to grow it right there!)  The real fan of the plant were folks in Arabia, who used it both for heart disorders, and for lifting the spirits (so again, it is a useful plant to have in the winter!)  In past centuries, it was used as a mild form of valerian.

I have shown my mixed herb planters in several posts this season.  Both come in.  Both contain more rosemary (the Spoiler would really get a complex if he knew, but it makes a great upright accent plant),  and sage.  One contains a variegated lavender while the other contains more parsley, thyme and spearmint.  It is the spearmint I find useful in the winter, for teas, punches and overall aroma.

In Greek mythology, mint plays an important role in several of the myths–too many to get into here.  In medieval times, like rosemary, it was a strewing herb, although they preferred mentha aquatica because it was even stronger than spearmint or peppermint.  Mint was one of the herbs the Colonists brought to the New Wold as a remedy for everything from headaches to digestive complaints and insomnia.  They also drank mint tea purely for–gasp–pleasure!  Spearmint is generally more mild flavored than peppermint–and there are numerous other mints as well–one can become quite discerning.  The young leaves have the best flavor; older leaves become bitter.

And should mice get in the house, mint is said to be an effective remedy to repel them.

Finally my tender perennial basil, (another mint-family plant) which makes it through into a part of the winter at least.  Basil has an interesting history.  In India, one variety, ocimum sanctum, or holy basil is worshipped and thought of as sacred.

Yet in seventeenth century Siena, it was thought to be poisonous–one derivation of the name is thought to come from the root of the word “basilisk.” But not too long afterword, a woman who put a pot of basil on her balcony was said to be ready to receive suitors!  So single ladies, take note!

My information for this post came from  Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs, Rodale Press, 1987.

Herbal Myths and Lore

As I prepare to bring my herbs onto the sun porch for their winter rest, I started thinking about herbal myths and lore.

Rosemary is one of the herbs that I am able to over-winter successfully.  There is a saying that where rosemary flourishes, the woman is the true head of the household.  Don’t let the Spoiler know about this–I use the rosemary for cooking and it does thrive in the cooler temperatures of the sun porch.

In the Middle Ages, people thought that rosemary offered protection against evil spirits so people would sleep with sprigs of it under their pillows.

And Shakespeare immortalized it in Hamlet as the “herb of remembrance,” by having mad Ophelia strew it around.

Perhaps the effect of the rosemary is offset by the fact that I keep myrtle (myrtis communis) around as well–but in the house as it is truly tender.  I’m not really sure what it is useful for as an herb, but it smells nice, looks pretty and is supposed to ensure marital harmony.

There is a long history around parsley, another herb that comes into the sun porch and goes into my soups and stews and other winter cooking.  The Greeks and Romans revered it and made laurels and garlands of it.  But in the British Isles it has a much less august history–it is thought to be related to witchcraft.  In our modern era, it is reputed to be a breath freshener, and it contains Vitamin A, more vitamin C per volume than an orange,  several B vitamins, calcium and iron.  That’s a lot of punch from a little herb!

Thyme is another herb that comes in as well, as does sage.  It’s almost as if I’m trying to recreate the old Simon and Garfinkel song.  But I’m really just bringing in things I find useful for my cooking, especially winter cooking.

Thyme has a confused origin, owing to the fact that there are several varieties.  What is clear is that the herb has been in use since the ancient Greeks, who used it to fumigate their homes of stinging insects.  In the Middle Ages, little pillows were made to chase away everything from epilepsy to melancholy.  It was also used to flavor liquor and cheese.  Today, I use it mostly for stews and slow cooker recipes.  You may detect its subtle flavor in cough syrups, which shows how versatile an herb it really is.

Sage most often finds its way into my stuffing, but occasionally I will make a sauce for pasta with it a well.  It is a humble end for a herb that the ancients credited with immortality.  Its name, salvia, is latin for salvation.  Even our Native Americans used it as part of a mix of herbs for purification. Sage has been used in perfumes, soaps, cosmetics, insect repellents, as a brightener for silver hair,  in skin and bath lotions and aftershaves.  It dries beautifully and its flowers attract bees–another reason to have it in the garden.  It has even been smoked as a tobacco, again by our Native American friends.  This is an amazingly versatile herb, owing in part to the variety of forms in which it is found.

I have 3 varieties that come in–purpurrea, tricolor and ‘La Creama’, a variety of ‘Bergarrten.’

But that’s enough for today.  We’ll continue this on tomorrow.

My information for this post came from  Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs, Rodale Press, 1987.

The Green Man

Driving home from a few too many late night meetings the other night I heard a radio show about “The Green Man.”  It was actually an episode of “Jarrem Lee, Ghost Hunter”.  I can’t recall the exact title of the episode but it had something to do with a tower–perhaps Beltram Tower, although I couldn’t seem to locate anything about that exact title in an episode search.

Regardless, a brief synopsis goes like this: the lord of the manor, so to speak, hired Jarrem Lee and his sidekick to investigate an old stone ruin on the property.  He tells them that an old village woman said it’s supposed to be a temple but it really doesn’t look like any temple he’s ever seen.  But everyone who goes up there is is never seen again and he thinks it’s haunted.

So Lee and the sidekick go up and find the place over-run with ivy–an ivy so lush that it has cracked the flagstone floor and completely overgrown the temple, even through it was cleared only a month earlier.

When they stop to take a cutting, they think for a moment that the leaves have an image of a face in them, but they dismiss it. But moments later, they find themselves engulfed by the ivy.  They only escape by burning it off.

Intrigued, they ask about the village woman who called the place a “temple,” and go to visit her.   They find her cottage covered by the same ivy.  Over her mantle is a carving of the Green Man.

When they ask about the carving she tells them that his spirit lives in the woods.  He used to live on the hill up by the temple but the Lord of the Manor tore down 12 yew trees that were sacred to him.  That angered him and he has attacked anyone who has gone up there ever since.

On the way back to tell the Lord what the problem is, Lee sees the Lord and many men converging on the temple with fire, trying to burn the ivy.  One by one they fall and are consumed by the ivy.

Lee and the sidekick go around the back of the temple and find the center of what had been the 12 yew trees to converse with and bargain with the Green Man to spare the lives of those converging on the temple.  A deal is struck–the Green Man will live in harmony with “man” from now on if the Lord of the Manor respects him and does no further harm to his sacred place.

This very modern retelling of the ancient Celtic iteration of the Green Man was fascinating to me–so of course I came home to look up the Green Man to see what I could find.

A Wikipedia entry dates him all the way back to Osiris in Egypt.  Most interestingly, the image that we most often see, from garden catalogs and the like, is also used in Medieval and Renaissance churches all over Europe–sort of in the gargoyle tradition!

[image courtesy of Google]

So the next time you see one of those cute Green Man carvings for the wall or a tree, think back on his storied tradition!