You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘sweet’ tag.

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One of the things which I think we humans underestimate is the degree to which organisms within ecosystems exchange information for mutual benefit.   The idea of wolves watching sheep in order to jump on them and eat them is familiar to us (we hominids are competitive and ruthless) but we are only now beginning to apprehend how widespread and commonplace symbiotic interactions are. For example, a team of Israeli scientists conducted an experiment to see whether pollinators communicate with the plants they are pollinating…and it seems like maybe they do!

The scientists subjected a common flower, the beach evening primrose (Oenothera drummondii) to five sorts of noise: silence, a bee buzzing from four in away, and low, medium and high pitched electronic noises  The scientists assayed and measured the amount of nectar that the primroses produced after being exposed to these varying noises.

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Oenothera drummondii

Flowers exposed to silence and to high and mid-pitch noises produced the same nectar as always, however primroses which were exposed to the humming bee and to the low pitched computer noises produced sweeter nectar. The sugar content of the nectar flowers produced after “hearing” these sounds rose from between 12 and 20 percent!

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Flowers and bees have co-evolved for 100 million years, so maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that they interact through sound (we already know that plants can communicate with hymenopterans by means of chemicals).  Yet somehow the results do surprise me.  Are plants hearing a great deal more than we suspect?  A great many flowers (and leaves) are shaped rather like ears.  Are different plants listening for different things. The nascent field of phytoacoustics will work to answer this question, but the fact that we are just now asking it leads me to believe that we humans have been talking rather than listening.  We are still not grasping the extraordinary scope and complexity of the webs of life which supports us (my experience with synthetic ecosystems already taught me about our great ignorance).  We need a greater understanding of dynamic ecology, yet our obtuseness in dealing with even the most familiar fellow life-forms is making it a challenge to even conceive of the right questions!

The end of spring and beginning of summer is one of the most magical times in the garden: April’s overture of bulbs and exquisite flowering trees has faded back, but now we get to the real melody of the flower garden–the timeless flowers of transcendent beauty like irises, lilies, roses, and…lilacs.

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Flower aficionados may now be raising their eyebrows. The flowers of lilacs are pretty enough in a nondescript way: they look like fuzzy lavender dumplings on deep green broad-leafed trees, but they are not like lilies and roses, the peerless queens of opulent beauty.  Why am I mentioning them here?  The answer is obvious to people who love gardens, but it is a difficult answer to show on a blog.  Honeysuckles, jasmine, gardenias, and roses are all famous for their scent, but, to my nose, nothing smells as paradisiacal as lilacs. Their smell of spicy honey is a sensory experience all to itself.  I can’t even think of how to properly describe it except as lilac-smelling.  If you can’t summon it to our mind, you should sprint out into the dusk and run through temperate Europe and North America until you smell their heady perfume.

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The lilac (Syringa vulgaris) is a species of flowering plant from the the olive family.  The common lilac is a small tree native to the Balkan Peninsula, where it grows naturally upon rocky hills.  Lilac trees are small and measure at most 6–7 meters (20–23 ft) in height.  They can reproduce from an olive-like brown capsule which splits open into two helicopter seeds or by suckering (over time, lilacs form small clonal colonies).

Greece is the cradle of Western Civilization, yet there are no myths that I can think of about lilacs.  Medieval letters are likewise silent about lilacs and the fragrant flowers aren’t even mentioned at all by Shakespeare.  Lilacs came late to the garden, which, combined with their average looks, is perhaps why we rhapsodize about them less than we should (it is worth noting that there is a beautiful sort of Korean lilac, which, when blooming, looks like a purple dream, but it is not renowned for its scent–it seems that only the rose is capable of having it all).

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Korean Dwarf Lilac

The garden lilacs we have seem to descend from Ottoman specimens. Apparently Turkish gardeners managed to ferret out treasures which the ancients missed.  These were hybridized and domesticated during the 14th and 15th centuries and cuttings reached the most fashionable and innovative gardens of Western Europe in the late 16th century through the Holy Roman Empire (so Shakespeare could have smelled lilacs, if only he had known the most botanically-connected and florally-innovative aristocrats).

Whatever their provenance, lilacs smell wonderful, and I feel like they should be more fashionable (indeed they have been at the center of garden fame at various points in 18th and 19th centuries).  For the sake of Ferrebeekeeper themes it is worth noting that “lilac” is also the name of a muted shade of pale purple.  To wrap up the post here is a lilac ottoman.  Since I could never find images of the great Ottoman lilac gardens of medieval Istanbul, this purple padded stool will have to do.

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Apples (Malus pumila) originated in Central Asia somewhere around Turkey/Georgia/Armenia–where the wild apple (Malus sieversii) still grows.  These delightful members of the rose family have been continuously cultivated, hybridized, grafted, and cloned since prehistory.  Apples are shockingly promiscuous and their seeds are different (sometimes extremely different) from the parent, so varieties (“cultivars”) are cloned and grafted. There are more than 7500 cultivars of apples grown and each is really a clone—or a still living clonal scion–of the original tree they come from. The history and meaning and delight of the apple is beyond my ability to even begin to discuss, however I want to talk about the best variety of apple which is widely available in the United States, the Golden Delicious, because it comes from the same place as me.  The first Golden Delicious tree comes from Clay County, an obscure county in West Virginia where my whole family hales from (well, at least for the last 250 years or so, I guess we are from Africa by way of Europe originally).

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Golden Delicious apples are a bright yellow (or yellow green) apple which are extremely sweet and fragrant.  The original tree was found on the Mullins’ family farm in Clay County and the fruit was locally known as “Mullin’s Yellow Seedling” and “Annit apple” until 1914/15 when it was renamed the Golden Delicious by Stark Brothers Nursery to whom Anderson Mullins sold the cultivation rights and the tree (for the then princely sum of $5000).

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Golden delicious apples are wonderful for cooking, salads, and sauces, but their sweet taste makes them perfect for eating too (although their bright crisp flesh and nearly transparent skin makes them susceptible to bruising). Wikipedia tells us that “In 2010, an Italian-led consortium announced they had decoded the complete genome of the Golden delicious apple. It had the highest number of genes (57,000) of any plant genome studied to date.”  To my eye, Golden Delicious apples also look like the golden apples of Aphrodite which sometimes play a saucy role in Greek mythology or even the forbidden apples of the Hesperides which conferred immortality (if you could get past Hera’s dragon).   Anyway I picked a bunch of them upstate this past weekend and I can’t stop thinking about them…or eating them.  After Halloween week is done, I will share my favorite apple pie recipe.  However next week is not about apples…it is about snakes!

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Blind-Eye Prickly Pear

Blind-Eye Prickly Pear

Opuntia is a genus of cactus which produces a sweet studded fruit–the prickly pear. Like all true cacti, the Opuntia genus comes from the Americas. Opuntia plants are naturally occurring from Connecticut and Long Island west to Chicago and southern Canada! More and more species can be found growing in the American southwest down into Mexico (where the greatest diversity of Opuntia species are found). Varieties of the plants also grow naturally throughout Central America, the Caribbean, and down into South America (although “naturally” might be the wrong word—the peoples of the Americas have been instrumental in the spread of these plants for a long time).

A prickly pear (Opuntia) clonal colony in fruit

A prickly pear (Opuntia) clonal colony in fruit

Opuntia plants consist of large flat green pads which have two sorts of spine. There are long sharp hard spines capable of drawing blood & causing serious injury, but also, more insidiously, there are infinitesimal hairlike prickles called glochids. If touched, these glochids feel like fur but the microscopic ends break off and penetrate the skin where they prickle agonizingly. Argh! Just writing about them is making me itch.

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Prickly pears are incredibly hardy plants which are resistant to drought, disease, and animals. They easily grow into great clonal colonies which people sometimes use as a sort of natural fence. In the sixties, Cuba planted a prickly pear wall all around the American military base at Guantanamo Bay so that fleeing dissidents would be unable to seek shelter there.

An opuntia hedge towers over travelers on camelback

An opuntia hedge towers over travelers on camelback

However it is not for its spines, its toughness, or its prodigious ability to grow that the prickly pear is principally known, but for its sweet colorful fruit. These cactus fruits are colloquially (but wrongly) known as “pears” or “figs” in English (and endless other names in many, many other languages). The fruit are filled with delicious juice, tasty flesh, and hard but edible seeds. The fruits have only modest amounts of essential nutrients (particularly fiber, vitamin C, and magnesium), but they are filled with phytochemicals–a catch-all term for molecules made by plants which may have biological/medical significance. Scientists believe prickly pear fruit may be beneficial for mitigating the negative health consequences of diabetes, high cholesterol, and obesity (and hangovers too). Additionally, certain prickly pear phytochemicals may have antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties. There were lots of ambiguous words and conditional phrases in there. I don’t know what to tell you…Medical science is working on it, but they have a lot on their plate.

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Whatever the health benefits, prickly pear is delicious and it grows in places where other things do not. This means the plant has been imported to Australia, Asia, Africa, the middle east, and many other places. It is easy to grow, and hard to kill, so prickly pear is (quietly) one of the great invasive species of the time. Since it has mostly established itself in forsaken deserts where nothing was growing anyway, nobody is particularly worried…for the moment. Did I mention forsaken deserts? The prickly pear is particularly at home in Israel and Palestine where it has become an integral part of both cultures. I was first shown how to cut open and eat prickly pears by a Jew who said that hardened native-born Israeli Jews who farm the desert call themselves “sabras” (the modern Hebrew term for the fruits) because they are spiny and tough on the outside but sweet and generous in their hearts.

I really like prickly pears and I have been wanting to make a bunch of prickly pear ice cream custard. I will let you know how this project goes…I have the feeling it is going to turn into a big hilarious magenta mess, so stay tuned for that!

Dioscorea alata

Dioscorea alata is a naturally occurring species of yam from tropical Asia.  Yams are perennial vines which are widely cultivated for their starchy tubers—a dietary staple in great swaths of Africa.  Dioscorea alata is different from the African yams in that it is principally used as a dessert or a dessert flavoring.  The yam, which goes by other names such as “water yam”, “winged yam,” “ratalu”, “purple yam” or, perhaps most characteristically as “ube” (in the Phillipines, where it is highly esteemed)  is also different from virtually every other food stuff in that it is a shocking shade of bright lavender.

Purple Yam Ice Cream

Although Ube is valued for its high starch content and esteemed as a folk remedy for various ailments, it is principally a foodstuff and has the highest distribution of any yam—being the principle yam of South Asia, Indochina, and the Pacific.  Even in Africa, it is the second most popular yam.  Although sometimes cooks stir fry it as chips or cook it as a curry, ube is most famous for its sweet flavor and is a main flavor and ingredient of all sorts of pastries, ice creams, cakes, jams, and confections.

Ube Cake

I am blogging about ube because of the striking color—and indeed ube has given its name to a bright hue of lavender.  I would love to describe the flavor, but I have never had ube anything—a particular shock since one of the most critically lauded restaurants in my neighborhood is named “The Purple Yam”.   Perusing the online menu makes me particularly regretful that I have never dined there since the menu is filled with deep fried pork belly, mussels in curry, duck, goat, and shrimp in addition to pomelos, jackfruits and, of course, purple yam themed sweets.

Ube Halaya

 

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