Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Jumpin Geraniums!

Geraniums are my fiancé’s favorite flower. When he was a child his grandmother grew geraniums in their yard, and to him, this scent means home. When we began dating my mother gave him a clipping of the smelliest geranium she could find, an old fashioned variety that had been growing in our yard for years.

As you can probably guess from my introduction, geraniums hold a special place in my family. The geranium my mother gave my fiancé is currently in full bloom, on our back step, celebrating its second anniversary in that big blue pot.
Pelargonium common name, Geranium. A gift from my mother's garden.

When I started to do research for this post, I honestly didn’t think I’d find much about geraniums. They’re a friendly flower and a staple in many gardens, but they just didn’t seem like the type of bloom that would inspire very many stories.  Well, I was wrong.

First of all, there is a story that credits the geranium with a rather illustrious beginning: one day the Prophet Mohammed washed his shirt and hung it on a mallow plant to dry. Once it was dry and he removed the shirt, the plant had transformed into a beautiful blooming geranium. The other legend I found that included Mohammed told that one day a swallow touched the edge of the Prophet’s robe and was transformed into the geranium. I’m unsure if the transformation was a blessing or a punishment, but I do find it interesting that the geranium seems not to be able to simply exist, but that it is believed to be the result of an entity’s divine transformation.

A common name, cranesbills, also plays with this idea of a geranium being more than merely a flower. This nickname is often given because the physical feature of some geranium species where the flower stem has a craning neck, and/or black seed-heads that resemble a crane’s bill. 
Geranium 'Rozanne' Rozanne Cranesbill, at HBG

Similarly, I found two conflicting stories regarding red or scarlet geraniums. Supposedly, if you keep a scarlet geranium in your house year round, a family member will die. Very depressing, so please take your flowers outside! However, good witches are said to plant red or scarlet geraniums in pots outside their homes. Pink geraniums also have a home in the witches’ cupboard, where they can be an ingredient for love spells.

Geraniums also have an active role in folklore. One old belief in New England is that snakes will not go near a spot where wild geraniums grow. But my favorite legend is that if you come upon a geranium with the blossom pointing downward, it is warning that you are stuck in the past and that constant reminiscing is stealing your future.

It seemed to me that a plant that protects from snakes, can cause death when cloistered, warns against melancholy, aids with love spells, and graces the yards of good witches might have attracted some attention from the literary community. After all, these are some rather juicy attributes that must have inspired at least one writer, and after a little digging, I wasn’t at all disappointed. In fact, I have a few new tomes added to my to-read shelf.

Agatha Christie wrote her short story The Blue Geranium in 1929, and it is now available in a collection of stories called The Thirteen gives us a brief summary of the tale:

Mrs Pritchard, has arranged to see a psychic who warns her there is evil and danger in her house.  Two days later she receives a letter from the psychic; she must beware the full moon: blue primrose means warning, blue hollyhock is danger and blue geranium is death!  When the warnings begin to appear poor Mrs Pritchard is terrified – could there be truth in the psychic’s message?

Dire warnings, especially when blue geraniums are so lovely!  But Ms. Christie was not the only lady in literature to include these lovely flowers in her writing. Flannery O’Connor’s first published short story was The Geranium, (1946) which she later rewrote and retitled  An Exile in the East. (1954)

In addition to being the stars of these short stories, geraniums have turned up in many famous pieces of literature. In both Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868) and E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View (1908) there are characters that cultivate red geraniums. Also, in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, (1960) Mayella Ewell keeps red geraniums in jars outside her rundown homestead, hoping to create an air of civility.

Leaves of the Pelargonium, common name Geranium 

I’d like to leave you with something rather interesting item I found in Jan Berry’s recipe book, Art of Preserving.  It turns out that both the blossoms and the leaves of geraniums are edible. Perhaps that is not surprising to everyone, but I had never even considered adding this plant to my menus. But to finish my entry today I’d like to leave you with one of the recipes in Ms. Berry’s book, which to me sounds like it would be delicious to have out at a dinner party with a bit of sharp cheddar and some water crackers….. Yum!
By Lori Conkling

Apple and Geranium Jelly
From Art of Preserving by Jan Berry
4 pounds (2 kg) firm cooking apples, roughly chopped
12 rose or spiced geranium leaves, washed
4 cups (1 liter) water
White granulated sugar
Juice of 1 lemon

Place the apple and geranium leaves in a jam pan or a large, wide saucepan, add the water, bring to a boil and simmer until the apple is very soft, about 5 to 10 minutes. Discard the geranium leaves. Ladle the pulp into a jelly bag and allow it to drip into a bowl overnight. Discard the fruit pulp left in the bag. The next day, measure the juice and for every cup (250 mL) juice add 1 cup (8 ounces/250 g) sugar. Place the juice and the sugar in the cleaned pan with the lemon juice over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat and boil rapidly until setting point is reached, about 30 to 40 minutes. Ladle the jelly into warmed, sterilized jars and seal.

Makes about 6 cups

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Yoga in the Garden

I met with Patricia Starr at the garden today.  She will be teaching Yoga for Gardeners & Friends of Gardeners on Wednesday, July 24th.  We stood in the lawn and considered the best site for the class.  She quickly fell into instructing yoga while we talked.  She demonstrated a pose to improve the flexibility of my hips and then led me through mountain pose, suggesting that as we garden, we should break regularly to stretch.  In her class at HBG, students will learn a number of poses to use throughout their gardening session that will help them garden more comfortably.  

I asked Patricia if she would like to walk through the Dedekam Ornamental Terrace Garden and so we did.  She had an idea to do a mediation walk.  I asked her what it was and she led me through it.  Feeling my feet connected with ground, wandering the garden, not trying to get anywhere, breathing in and out in step, feeling connected and similar to the plants, I quickly found myself less distracted and content to take in the garden’s hues and scents.  

Thank you Patricia for my mini-yoga session at the garden!

Janna Snell

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Many Faces of Foxglove

Foxgloves have always held a particular fascination for me. On the goat farm where I grew up, my parents would not allow this flower to be planted, in case one of the goats got loose and decided to go “browsing.” By forbidding this plant, it only became more alluring to me. I looked on in envy at the cottage gardens where their tall spires reigned supreme, and sighed when I saw them growing wild on the roadside.
But apparently my appreciation of foxgloves has put me in good company. There is an abundance of myths, legends, and folklore surrounding this beautiful flower.

One of the earliest mentions of the foxglove can be found in a list of flora complied during the time of Edward III. (King of England, 1327-1377.) As for where the foxglove got its name, there are a few different ideas.  Many believe that it is a corruption of “folks’ glove,” as “folks” are what our fourteenth century European ancestors called the fairies. At the time, belief in fairies was common, and so ascribing certain fairy attributes to different flora and fauna was not unusual.

In fact, the small dark dots inside the bells of the foxglove were believed to be where the fairies had pressed their fingers to leave a warning regarding the toxicity of the plant.

The second theory I discovered about the naming of the foxglove still involves the fairies, but this time it also actually involves foxes. The stories out of Norway and Wales indicate that to protect the foxes from becoming extinct, the fairies taught them to ring the bells of the foxglove to alert each other when hunters were near. Then some very naughty fairies taught the foxes to wear the bells of the flower as gloves on their feet, so that they might walk softly while hunting the farmer’s chickens.

But myths that include the foxglove go back long before the fourteenth century. The oldest story I could find is as follows:

The goddess Juno, of Roman mythology, was angry that Jupiter had given birth to Minerva without a mother. She thought that if he was able to have a child alone, she should be able to as well. She consulted with Flora, the goddess of flowers, who lightly touched Juno on the belly and breasts with a foxglove, and Juno conceived. She gave birth to the god Mars…. With only a little help from Flora and a foxglove.


Foxgloves also have made appearances in art and literature. While most of us are aware of William Wordsworth’s love of daffodils, I’ll bet not everyone knew he had made a few comments about foxgloves as well.

"My poor Babe
Was crying, as I thought, crying for bread
When I had none to give him; whereupon,
I put a slip of foxglove in his hand,
Which pleased him so, that he was hushed at once:
When, into one of those same spotted bells
A bee came darting, which the Child with joy
Imprisoned there, & held it to his ear,
And suddenly grew black, as he would die."

William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

No, it’s not nearly as uplifting as Daffodils, but it does touch on the underlying danger that a foxglove brings with it.

Dr. William Withering is accredited with discovering that beneficial effects of digitalis purpurea (foxglove) in 1775, although he admits that he learned the folk remedy from “an old woman in Shropshire.” The foxglove contains a chemical compound called digitoxin which has long been used as a medication, even into modern times. It is used nowadays as a heart medication, though in the past it was used for many different illnesses, including skin issues and by midwives, earning it one of its folk names, Granny’s Gloves. However, the helpful dose is so close to the dangerous or lethal dose that it must not be used by the amateur herbalist. It is dangerously toxic, and an incorrect dosage can lead to heart palpitations, delirium, hallucinations, vomiting, and death. 

I’ve saved my favorite story for last, and it concerns an artist that we all know: Vincent Van Gogh.  Yes, it is true that a foxglove appeared in one of the paintings he did toward the end of his life (Portrait of Dr. Gachet,) but that is not the anecdote that interests me .

Legend has it that Van Gogh took digitalis to treat his epilepsy. Art historians have theorized that he might have overdone it a bit, because a possible outcome of digitalis poisoning is xanthopsia, which, according to is “A form of chromatopsia, a visual abnormality in which objects look as though they have been overpainted with an unnatural color. In xanthopsia, that color is yellow.”

Wow. I think about that, and I think about Van Gogh’s paintings. Have you ever noticed the massive amounts of yellow he used? Even the way the moon has a yellow nimbus in Starry Starry Night makes me wonder if this is the way he actually saw color, and if it might’ve been a side effect of the digitalis. Or maybe he just really liked yellow. There’s no way we’ll know, but it is still fun to speculate and look at his art, and the foxglove, in a new way.

The paintings are treasures, regardless of this theory. But it is stories like this that make me realize how the plants we see everyday have been woven into the fabric of human history, sometimes in ways we cannot even imagine. Like most of the stories and legends I found, they only made this gorgeous plant more interesting to me, and I hope to make it a star in my own cottage garden someday. After all, I have no goats to worry about…

By Lori Conkling

Saturday, March 16, 2013

CR-HBGF Fun Run/Walk

April 20th, 2nd Annual CR & HBGF Fun Run/Walk, Registration 8:30-9:45 a.m., Run Starts 10:00 a.m., $20/adult, $10/student, Run begins and ends at CR Football Field More Information

Garden Study School

Sign up for the Gardening Study School, April 5th & 6th, 9:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m. with a tour of the Humboldt Botanical Garden on Friday, April 5th. Contact for more information or a registration form.