Monday, January 30, 2012

What's In a Name?: Nandina and Other Baby Names

My siblings sometimes tease me that if I had children they would be named after plants.
But not Hazel or Heath,
Aspen or Iris,
Rowan or Violet,
Poppy or Primrose,
Saffron or Yves.

I probably wouldn’t call my child Rose or Lily or Jasmine, or even Willow or Honeysuckle.  I appreciate the recent vogue for slightly old-fashioned names like Myrtle, Fern, Olive and Daisy.  But why not take it a step further?

Veronica, Daphne, Nyssa, Erica, Angelica, Carissa, Felicia, Nigella, Thalia, Petunia and Viola are all plant genera and lovely, lovely baby names.  Magnolia, Andromeda, Anemone, Calla, Calypso, Dahlia, Narcissus and Camellia serve both functions as well.  Artemis was the Greek Diana, so why not name a child Artemisia to capture that history and celebrate the silvery shrub?  Cosmos instead of Cosmo.  Gladiolus instead of Gladys.  Amaryllis instead of Mary or Lily or May.

And then, what about names directly from plant nomenclature?  Can you imagine a sturdy little boy named Acer or Cedrus?  Kerria, Phlox, Alyssum and Nerine (pronounced nay-REE-knee) would be perfect for a quartet of gardener’s daughters.  And I like the idea of Nandina.

As in…
nan                  (Ann with N in front)
DEE                  (Sandra or Ruby Dee)
nah                  (the end of China or Botswana).

The emphasis is on DEE.
Most folks usually run the last two syllables together and say nan-DEAN-ah.
Commonly known as Heavenly Bamboo, Nandina is a multi-stemmed, evergreen shrub from the Barberry family.  Mainly grown for its cheerful, almost lacy, bamboo-like foliage, Nandina also sports panicles of milky white, late-spring-into-summer flowers followed by clusters of little red berries.  Leaf colors range from dark black-purple to emerald green to blazing red, depending on the cultivar.  New growth is often tinged pink or burgundy.  And Nandinas have been bred in almost every size from dwarf groundcovers to major specimen shrubs.  Originally from Asia, all are cultivars of the species Nandina domestica.

Nandina handles full sun to partial shade.  Although it seems to bloom best, and therefore fruit more, in sun.  It tolerates high humidity and drought, once established, and can live for years with very little maintenance in Zones 5-10… and often survives north to Zone 4 and south to Zone 11.  We have a pair flanking our front steps that are decades old and easily battle the extreme southeast exposure year after year.  The bushes provide shelter for birds and embellishments for Christmas wreaths or centerpieces.  And their flowers make our garden bees very happy.

I think the local Nandina shrubs have appreciated our rather mild winter so far.  They look gorgeous, even in the most inhospitable locations.

But Nandina can be problematic because it is so persistent and easy-care.  Roots and berries are poisonous to domesticated animals, and I suppose, humans, but not birds.  So plants can readily spread by suckers and seed.  Nandina is often planted en masse in public landscapes and suburban gardens and has basically naturalized in forests and wild areas of the Deep South, sometimes becoming invasive.

I still think Nandina is an attractive, useful plant but I don’t recommend adding it to your garden if you live below Zone 7.  Enjoy the ones you and your neighbors already have.  Consider an evergreen Viburnum for your backyard… and the name Nandina for a happy, graceful child in your life.
Over the years, there have been many Hollys and Heathers, Laurels and Reeds, a couple Cherrys and Lavenders and Ivys.  Rosemary is a family name, but more as a tribute to past Roses and Marys rather than the popular herb.  I’ve known a Bracken, a Sage and a Rose-of-Sharon but never a Hyacinth!  So why not a Nandina?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Bluebird Luminosity: Robert Stuart, Isca Greenfield-Sanders and Paul Lancaster

A group of Bluebirds visited our front yard last week.  Five in all, a small family probably, they paused for just a few minutes before taking flight again… a Cooper’s Hawk in quick pursuit.  The sight of them was mesmerizing.

I know Bluebirds are often described as royal blue.  But I think the males’ feathers look much more electric blue with the faintest wash of dark lilac -- like the sky on an extremely bright, clear day just before dusk.  The more gently-colored female and juvenile birds verge on a speckled, steel-gray-rusty-brown without any purple cast.  But their tail and wing feathers sport shades somewhere between brilliant blue and the Adriatic Sea.  Of course, Bluebirds are not actually blue.  The structure of their feathers scatters incoming light so that only the shorter wavelengths are reflected, and they appear blue to us.

I’ve always been drawn to blue paints and pigments, especially vivid, vibrant blues with a tinge of red or a hint of green.  They are somehow both comforting and invigorating… multi-layered and boldly pure... mysterious and reassuring.  A blue’s dichotomy depends a lot on its luminance, basically the intensity or “whiteness” of a color, and its saturation, also known as its chroma or trueness of a color.  So, a watered-down, pastel blue soothes and recedes.  But the imperfect, crystal blues of Bluebirds almost hum with energy.
Pantone's Blue Sky-Imagination Palette
from their Fall 2011-Winter 2012 Colour Planner: Wonder
Robert Stuart, Isca Greenfield-Sanders and Paul Lancaster are artists who regularly utilize blue to create excitement and replicate light in their paintings.

Virginia artist Robert Stuart is often inspired by sunlight filtered through mundane objects, like glass bottles or wood planks.  In a way, his paintings are the ultimate abstraction of a landscape or still-life -- just texture, color and light.  He explains “… I aspire to work with the forces (of light and atmosphere) themselves, directly, without the intermediary representation of objects.”
Blue Poles

Bands of Blue
Robert employs oil paint and wax, and sometimes fabric or paper collage, frequently on very large canvases.  Blue is a recurring color in shades from stunning cobalt to the faintest almost-white.
Scantlings Oceanic
Summer Cloud
These blues seem to illuminate the paintings from within and radiate warmth and joy.
Rust and Blue
Isca Greenfield-Sanders is another artist who uses multiple layers and bold colors to distill the essence of somewhat commonplace images.  Each painting starts with a vintage photograph, a scene of everyday life, which Isca reprints on delicate rice paper.  She completes a pencil and watercolor study directly on the rice paper and then enlarges the study and attaches it to a much bigger canvas.  Isca applies layers of transparent and opaque oil paint to finish the piece.
Woman in Waves

Light Leak (Soccer)
Each step adds to the abstraction, and somehow, the familiarity and quietness, of the image.  
Marker 86
Isca explains “Instead of memory looking faded, as it might in a movie flashback, I prefer to imagine moments as hyper-realized.  Highly saturated color is important to the feeling of my paintings.  I often expand the margins of the captured image to include more sky, more landscape, more water, rending my subjects smaller, and I think that perspective contributes, ironically, to the intimacy of the image.”
Red Boat Beach, Julie (Blue)
Blue is a powerful, emotional barometer in Isca’s work.  Sometimes blue reinforces the immediacy of the moment, other times its sorrow and isolation.
Parachute Class II

Orange Suit Bather
Unlike Robert and Isca, Paul Lancaster is a self-taught artist.  Born and raised in Tennessee, Paul draws inspiration from his natural surroundings and Native American heritage.  Often described as a folk or visionary artist, he has obviously been influenced by the dream-like landscapes of Henri Rousseau, and I suspect, traditional images of the Virgin Mary.
The Old Pond
Girl and Her Cat
Blue plays a significant role in Paul’s canvases, often casting an ethereal glow over the whole setting, or emphasizing a key figure and her bond with our physical and spiritual worlds.
Catching Fireflies

Woodland Solitude
His paintings are stunning and serene… not unlike a family of Bluebirds.

Robert Stuart is represented by the Reynolds Gallery in Richmond, Virginia.  Isca Greenfield-Sanders is represented by Haunch of Venison in New York and the John Berggruen Gallery in San Francisco.  And Paul Lancaster is represented by Grey Carter in McLean, Virginia.
You can learn more about him in the book: Paul Lancaster: Immersed in Nature.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

How Carrots Won The Trojan War

How Carrots Won the Trojan War: Curious (but True) Stories of Common Vegetables is a perfect read at the start of the new year when we are barraged with reminders to eat healthier.  Author Rebecca Rupp, who usually writes for children, has packed her book with tons of information and even more hilarity.
Each chapter explores the culinary, agricultural, scientific and social sagas of a different vegetable.  A few fruits earn chapters as well, including melons, and of course, tomatoes.  Rebecca manages to share real nutritional data, ancient recipes and long-standing vegetable myths with her light-hearted prose and little, "funny but true", snippets.

Current vegetable varieties have suffered long and often prejudiced histories to become the well-respected fundamentals of our daily diets!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Horn and Hardart's Baked Macaroni and Cheese

New York Cookbook by Molly O’Neill is one of those cookbooks you can just pick up and read any time.  Chock full of historical and anecdotal information:
notes on New York’s culinary firsts,
descriptions of its seafood markets and window displays,
examples of different barbecue traditions,
a dictionary of “deli speak”,
lists of street fairs and neighborhood festivals
and explanations of what makes New York cuisine so New York,
it is a cookbook, travel guide and social history.  I’ve owned a copy since 1993.

New York Cookbook includes hundreds of recipes from all over the city.  Some are courtesy of professional chefs, renowned and not-so-well-known, and cosmopolitan, gastronomic institutions, like the “21” Club, Zabar’s, Le Cirque, Serendipity, The Four Seasons, Lord and Taylor and The Algonquin.  Plus there are recipes from folks you know… just not as cooks!...  Bill Blass’ Meatloaf, Bianca Jagger’s Salmon a la Basilique, Katharine Hepburn’s Brownies, Ed Bradley’s Shrimp Creole, Oscar de la Renta’s Pumpkin and Crab Soup and Robert Motherwell’s Brandade de Morue.

But most of the recipes have been contributed by folks just like you and me.  And they draw on the different immigrant, religious and cultural customs that make up New York and the American experience.
Horn and Hardart’s Baked Macaroni and Cheese is one of my favorites and comes directly from the celebrated Automat.  This recipe is incredibly easy and creates a beautifully creamy Mac and Cheese.  It reads as follows:

4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups milk
1 teaspoon salt
Dash of freshly ground white pepper
Dash of cayenne pepper
2 cups shredded Cheddar cheese
½ pound elbow macaroni, fully cooked and drained
½ cup canned tomatoes, drained and chopped
1 teaspoon sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Grease a 2-quart baking dish.

Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat.  Whisk in the flour, then add the milk, salt and both peppers.  Stir almost constantly until the mixture thickens and is smooth, 8 to 10 minutes.  Add the cheese and cook, stirring until it melts.  Remove from the heat.

In a mixing bowl, combine the macaroni and the sauce.  Stir in the tomatoes and sugar.  Transfer the macaroni mixture to the greased baking dish.  Bake until the surface browns, 30 to 40 minutes.

Serves 4 to 6
Stirring the milk and butter sauce before I add the shredded cheese.
So, here’s the deal… I don’t add the tomatoes.  I prefer my vegetables on the side.  And because I don’t add the tomatoes, I don’t add the sugar.  And I don’t need a separate bowl to mix the sauce and the pasta.  So, once I’ve drained the pasta, I just mix it right into the pot of melted cheese sauce.
Usually I’ll use elbow or medium shell noodles.  This time I used Barilla’s Piccolini Mini Rotelles.  Just because I thought they looked cute.  Horn and Hardart’s Baked Macaroni and Cheese is a great winter lunch and keeps well if you want to make it ahead and reheat portions in the oven or microwave.

I never visited a Horn and Hardart Automat, except for the one on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.  Joe Horn and Frank Hardart opened the first American Automat in 1902, in Philadelphia, not New York.  But the business eventually grew to 85 restaurants between the two cities.
Horn and Hardart coaster in the New York Historical Society's collection
Automats were hugely popular during the first half of the 20th century.  They were “waiterless” cafeterias that served home-style diner food out of huge vending machines, essentially “fast food” before burgers and fries and drive-thrus.  In addition to Macaroni and Cheese, Horn and Hardart was famous for their chicken potpie, Salisbury steak, fruit and cream pies, and of course, puddings.  The New York Cookbook includes a recipe for Horn and Hardart’s Baked Beans as well.

Friday, January 13, 2012

A Jasmine Is a Jasmine, Or Is It?

My Jasmine is blooming… a lovely sight in the middle of winter and one that confuses a lot of passersby.  “Your Forsythia is in bloom already!” which leads me to explain that it is a Jasminum nudiflorum or Winter Jasmine and is meant to flower this time of year.
Jasminum belongs to the Olive family, and most originated from tropical and subtropical habitats in India, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.  Of course, we usually associate Jasmines with heady perfumes.  But, in fact, not all species possess fragrant flowers.  And quite a few are hardy enough to withstand winters in the Mid-Atlantic.

Jasminum nudiflorum is a mounding, almost weeping shrub, native to China, which easily grows to 4’ high and 8’ across.  Some gardeners train it up a trellis.  Here in Central Virginia, we often plant Winter Jasmine on slopes and along city streets to reduce soil erosion and keep weeds at bay.
My Jasmine, maintained as a single, ornamental specimen, is uncommon.  But I believe it deserves every inch of its prime real estate.  Adjacent to our driveway, it marks the transition from side to back yard and has thrived through decades of abuse: garbage cans and recycling bins, parked cars, snow removal, backhoes and summer after summer of blistering heat.  It provides shelter for birds and praying mantises.  And every winter, snow or sleet, it swells with hundreds of cheerful yellow trumpet-flowers.
Jasminum floridum (Showy Jasmine) and J. fruticans (Shrubby or Wild Jasmine) are two other hardy Jasmine shrubs, native to China and the Mediterranean respectively, that remain smaller here on the northern edge of their comfort zones.  They are both semi-evergreen with delicate stems, shiny green leaves and bright yellow tubular flowers.  Like Winter Jasmine, the tangled haystack of Showy Jasmine grows well on banks or draping over walls and prefers full sun.  It blooms late spring through summer.  Shrubby Jasmine has a more upright habit.  Late spring-into-summer blossoms are abundant but odorless and may repeat in the fall.
Early 19th century print of Jasminum fruticans
available at Old Imprints in Portland, Oregon.
If you love yellow, you might consider planting all three hardy Jasmine shrubs to extend your bloom time.  They require a lot less space than Forsythias and, as far as I know, are non-invasive… unlike the pretty but prolific Scotch Broom.

The descriptor jasminoides often distinguishes other species with very fragrant, trumpet-like blossoms, such as, Gardenia jasminoides (Gardenia), Pandorea jasminoides (Bower Vine) and Solanum jasminoides (Potato Vine).  And the common name Jasmine or Jessamine applies to several plants that are not true Jasminum.

Trachelospermum jasminoides is one of the most popular flowers in the South.  Known as Star or Confederate Jasmine, even though it originally hails from China and Japan, this evergreen vine can quickly reach 20-40’ high in warmer climates.  New growth emerges light green and darkens as it matures.  Deliciously-scented, little white stars of flowers bloom from late spring through summer.
‘Madison’ is the hardiest cultivar.  Maxing out at about 12’ high, ‘Madison’ can still be leveled by wicked winter weather.  And I’ve seen it struggle with aphids and white flies through summer droughts.  So, find it a protected, partially sunny spot in the garden.
Trachelospermum asiaticum or Asian Star Jasmine is a similar evergreen vine usually grown as dense groundcover further south.  Its pinwheel flowers are creamier in color, somewhere between ecru and primrose, with bright yellow centers.  Variegated cultivars, such as, ‘First Snow’, ‘Variegatum’, ‘Ogon Nishiki’ and ‘Winter Beauty’, seem to remain more modest in size.  Could they also be a little hardier?  Imagine them as replacements for Vinca minor or Euonymus fortunei.

I suspect I would need to pamper T. jasminoides and asiaticum here in Central Virginia, but both should perennialize in coastal areas of the Mid-Atlantic.  Please be aware: T. asiaticum is native to Japan and Korea and has become invasive… or at least very difficult to control… in some warmer regions of the country.

Gelsemium sempervirens, commonly known as Carolina Jasmine or Jessamine, is a vigorous vine native to the southeastern United States.  As the botanical name suggests, its slender leaves are evergreen in Zones 8 and 9 and semi-evergreen further north, possibly to Zone 6.  It enjoys partial shade to full sun and looks wildly lovely, with sweet-smelling, bright yellow blossoms, climbing up a trellis or over a fence.  At Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden’s Healing Garden, they show Carolina Jasmine trained up rebar teepees.  It’s rather lush and rustic, especially in March and April.
Gelsemium sempervirens photographed today at a local garden center.
In its northern range, it loses some of its winter greenery, but it is already in bud and should rebound.
G. sempervirens ‘Margarita’ is a cultivar with noticeably larger and more aromatic flowers.  ‘Double Shot’ promises repeat bloom.  And ‘Pride of Augusta’ sports frilly double blossoms that look more like little Pansies.
Gelsemium rankinii, called Swamp Jasmine or Jessamine, is a less prevalent species native to wetlands of the southeastern Coastal Plain and Lower Piedmont.  It shares characteristics of Carolina Jasmine, except, it usually repeats bloom, spring and autumn, and the flowers are without fragrance.  Of course, Swamp Jasmine requires a wet spot or regular watering in the garden!

I’m thinking about adding two G. sempervirens to the back garden.  I would like to create a backdrop for a new perennial border plus bring a little froth to the top of our picket fence.  However, I’ve read that all parts of the plant are poisonous.  How poisonous?  It’s rather confusing.  Gelsemium supposedly attracts butterflies and hummingbirds.  It’s been used in herbal medicines for centuries.  But it's poisonous to honey bees and pets?  More research is definitely needed before I proceed!

Oh yes, and in case you were wondering…
As in…
jazz                             (“All That Jazz”)
ME                               (not you but me)
num                             (that popsicle made my lips numb).
The emphasis is on ME, of course!

As in…
track-eel-o                  (say it kind of fast, almost like Dracula, that starts with T and ends with O)
SPERM                         (just like it sounds)
um                              (um… could you repeat that?)
The emphasis is on SPERM.

As in…
gel                               (not a cream but a gel)
SEM                             (the beginning of semi-colon)
ee-um                          (the end of helium or millennium).
The emphasis is on SEM.

Niche Gardens, Lazy S'S Farm Nursery and Woodlanders handle several varieties of Jasmine and Jasmine-like vines if you can't find them at your local garden center.  So plant a little sunshine!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Family Matters, Family Portraits

Portraits are powerful.  They capture a moment in our lives and affect our memories of it forever.  Like stories we hear again and again, portraits of loved ones and ancestors remain our reality long after these people have aged and left us.
My godmother about the time of her 11th birthday
Portraits are deceptive.  They enable us to influence how others perceive us.  We present the person, the family, the image we want the world to know.  Do you remember School Picture Day?  We donned our best outfits and our best behavior.  It was so stressful and exciting for me because I knew that annual photo would be shared with everyone of importance in my life.
Walter's grandmother at 16 or 17.
Photos like this one were probably sent "home" to relatives in her native Sweden.
Portraits are precious.  People routinely list family photos among their most prized possessions.  Over time, portraits become surrogates for the subjects themselves.  During the War of 1812, Dolley Madison famously rescued the portrait of George Washington from a burning White House, because she understood what it represented to the young United States and our enemies.  The portrait, its subject, the office of President and the success of a nation were all one.  Seizure or destruction was intolerable.

Family Matters: Portraits from the Qing Court is currently on display at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C.  The small exhibit includes 16, almost-life-size paintings of royalty, both men and women, from the Qing Dynasty.

The Qing Dynasty marks Manchu rule of China from 1644 until the Xinhai Revolution in 1911 and the founding of the Republic of China.  The Manchu people were considered foreigners, even invaders, in China proper when they consolidated northeastern tribes and overthrew Ming leaders.  Once firmly established (in about 1660), Qing rulers were incredible diplomats.  They gained great popularity by adopting existing Han Chinese culture and court customs and also fostering traditions of minority populations like themselves.  By the 18th century, the Manchus had built the largest empire… physically, ethnically and religiously… in Chinese history.
Portrait of Imperial Bodyguard Zhanyinbao, about 1760, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Art, literature and scholarship flourished.  Cities grew and wealth expanded beyond the ruling class.  Ingenuity and invention were valued.  And Qing emperors promoted the study of both science and history.  The Qing Court included European Jesuits who hoped to convert leaders to Christianity.  Of course, they did not succeed.  But they did share their knowledge of astronomy, artillery, map and clock making and Western music and painting techniques.  European artists living in China also learned traditional brush and ink painting.
Early multiculturalism: traditional Tibetan thangka
with Chinese Qianlong Emperor as Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom,
partially painted by Italian artist Giuseppe Castiglione,
mid-18th century, from the Alfred M. Sackler Gallery collection
The portraits in Family Matters are primarily from the early to mid-18th century and embody the height of Court patronage and cross-cultural exchange.  Based on traditional ancestor portraits, these paintings depict emperors and their wives, princes and princesses, as monuments, immovable and divine.  Details of ceremonial dress and palatial settings are stunningly executed.  But the paintings, softly, slyly, incorporate Western innovations: the use of oil paint, linear perspective and shadowing to emulate three-dimensionality and lend realism.
Portrait of Noblewoman from Family Matters: Portraits from the Qing Court
They also seem to be incredibly modern and personal, as if we are catching a glimpse of private moments in royal life.  Personal belongings or hints of a favorite past-time add individuality to these images.  But in fact, in the case of females, these are not literal portrayals of the sitter.  Royal women essentially lived cloistered lives seen only by an elite group at Court, which did not include Court painters.

In the West, images of kings and emperors have been commonplace for millennia.  Think of coins and public statues.  Full of symbolism and displays of wealth or talent, Western portraits were usually available to a wide audience in order to reinforce a leader’s strength and power.
Copy of the Holbein Portrait of Henry VIII at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool
The original was destroyed in a 1698 fire at the Palace of Whitehall.
But pictures of Chinese rulers, even male ones, were protected from everyday display and ownership until the 20th century.  Lovely Qing portraits were originally reserved for rituals of ancestor worship and, like the Emperor himself, were viewed by only a select few at Court.
Portrait of the Yongzheng Emperor in Court Dress from the Palace Museum in Beijing
Internal corruption and encroachment from industrially-dominant Europe and Japan eventually weakened Qing rule.  And extensive sponsorship of the arts and learning diminished.

Family Matters: Portraits from the Qing Court compels us to examine portraits of our own lives.  My Nanny, my mother’s mother, kept pictures of all her grandchildren.  She displayed them around the television, so she could see us every day.  The size of our photo corresponded with our place in her heart.  Favorites warranted 8” x 10”s or even 11” x 14”s.  And so on down the line with the least favored portrayed in only wallet-size pics.  If we displeased her, she laid our likeness facedown for a while.  It was a surprisingly simple system that helped each of us to understand our status within a large extended family… not unlike the Qing Court!

The Sackler Gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution’s museums of Asian art, is located at 1050 Independence Avenue, SW, within a block of the Smithsonian Metro stop.  The Gallery is open daily, 10 am until 5:30 pm; admission is free.  Family Matters runs through Monday, January 16.