Monday, June 13, 2011

Dragons, damsels and frogs

See my website for more on attracting these creatures to your home landscape!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Rio Pixquiac ecotour

Written for the Society for Economic Botany's newsletter on the Rio Pixquiac ecotour taken by several conference participants during the conference in Xalapa, Mexico, 2010:

The water needs of conference goers were supplied in part by ecosystem services provided by the Pixquiac river basin, along the southeast side of the volcano Cofre de Perote.  The river basin is home to a few hundred farming families in three ejido communities. The ejido system is a form of communal land holding whose origin stretches back to the conquest.  Allotments (ejidos) were given to indigenous communities, in many cases, as a way of keeping them near the missions of the Catholic Church. Later, through many land redistributions over time, the Ejido Act was codified in the Mexican constitution and has had many reforms since its inception. The end result in the Pixquiac river basin is the three ejido communities of San Pedro: Pixquiac Vega, Palo Blanco and El Zapotal.

The general assembly of San Pedro agreed that the common areas associated with cloud forests in the area would be designated reserves for the promotion of ecotourism and ecosystem services.  With funding and support of many different initiatives and entities, the ecotourism project, Pixquiac Cañadas was born.  The project hopes to provide an alternative to logging which has been the primary option for farmers in the region.  Twenty-eight farmers are dedicated to the ecotourism project and continually undergo training so that guests might share their knowledge of the area while at the same time preserving its character physically and culturally.

Over 15 SEB conference goers participated in an all day field trip to the river basin and its associated cloud forests.  Arriving at Rancho Viejo, we were greeted by project personnel and several farmers with a few horses to be shared among us.  After a short ride, we were treated to a presentation on the project that included a wonderful 3-D model of the watershed with villages, rivers and mountains mapped on its surface.  They patiently explained to our multi-lingual crowd the history of the site, purpose of the ecotourism project and plans for our path during the day.

As the interesting talk ended, the ~14km hike was a steady climb on rocky terrain up to the final stop (not the ultimate summit) of ~2400m.  We took turns riding horses when our feet got tired of navigating the rocks and the steep incline. Along the way, we stopped at various intervals for discussions of plants led by our farmer guides. After about 1.5 hours we made our first stop at a local home where we were served a wonderful local meal including milk still warm from the cow, small native avocados and much more. After a short bathroom break with a compostable toilet (perfect!), we made our way up to a lovely green meadow, waterfall and small pool where many people swam, waded and warmed themselves in the gentle sunshine.   At this point, a few people turned back, while most continued on. 

As we climbed higher, we noticed pine trees persisting on mountain ridges from more northerly reaches of the continent.  Though it may not have been a surprise to the tropical botanists in the crowd, the steep slopes were covered in butterworts, or Pinguicula species.  How amazing to see this small carnivorous plant growing vertically in this, the country of enormous butterwort diversity!  Finally, as we made it to the top, we shared a meal with a local family that included trout soup (harvested from the trout farm at the base of the mountain), handmade (of course!) corn tortillas, a deliciously refreshing mango drink and more.   After heading back down the steep terrain, we encountered first rain, then thunder and lightning (very intense) and finally, hail the size of malted milk balls!  The farmers, ever mindful of the effect of all that rain on the multiple river crossings coming up, moved us forward despite the hail.  A small group on foot broke away quickly from those of us in the rear of the pack riding horses (crossing the many creeks, now flowing strongly). After catching up with them, we managed to make it to the van just as dark began to descend. 

Though conditions were perhaps too harsh for the average American tourist, I think many would thoroughly enjoy this amazing location.  However, beyond the obvious benefits of the lush environment, I doubt many places could match the hospitality, compassion, patience, intelligence and dedication demonstrated by the farmers who were our nature guides in this lovely cloud forested habitat that is their home.

This trip will live in my mind for some time and I am only saddened that I couldn’t provide more detailed information, but alas-the rain destroyed my many notes.

Since visiting, I’ve noticed that they are on Facebook and currently have a blog dedicated to experiences in the watershed.  I for one-would love to purchase a guide of some kind-perhaps including the perspectives of the local farmers who were our guides. So, if you make it to Xalapa again, don’t hesitate to visit-this kind of support is exactly how to provide economic and ecologic benefits to local inhabitants and habitats. 

In the meantime, don’t forget to visit the Pixquiac Cañadas blog, listed below.   Additionally, see my blog below for pictures of the trip compiled from photos of many participants.  My apologies to the donors-I do not know everyone who donated, nor whose photo is whose-please feel free to email that to me and I will post it on the page ( 

Sunday, May 30, 2010

For love of flowers and of people

This past weekend I sang in harmony. Harmony with fellow humans whose values I share, time I cherish and future I support through this song. Harmony with the plants I have loved, known and still defy understandings. Harmony with my own skill sets so often unrecognized by others and then, least of all, by me. Harmony with my own family, choices in life and the wealth those things together accord me. Convergent harmonies to overcome attachments (sometimes to what I do not know) and blend with nature, culture and people-expressed with intimacy in media I know and share best.

Would the song be the same for all? I hope not.  For me, it was an expression of harmonious creativity based in the love of flowers and of people.  And though harmony was the intent, knowledge was created, interpreted and shared here:

Collecting, Assembling and Interpreting
I spent a week or more collecting, practicing and ok, looking on YouTube (there's a few answers there).  For three days in advance of the wedding, I spent most of the day collecting plant material from generous neighbors-all natives (ok, one or two naturalized).  To keep the flowers fresh, I made all the arrangements the night before.  Lucky for me, it was a cool May night-not always possible in SC-so keeping the flowers outside was almost as good as refrigeration.  The ribbons were earth tones-brown and celadon-perfect for a couple so connected to the land (and a bride who likes frogs, she says giggling).  The floral themes emerged as organically as the design, building on my knowledge of their lives and my hope for a fulfilling and long-lived future for them together.

The brides' bouquet:
-Thistle (Carduus nutans) in honor of the grooms Scottish heritage (2-one for each of them).  Such a beautiful flower with such prickliness (a little like marriage) surrounded by
-Queen Anne's lace (Daucus carota) on the backside of the bouquet surrounding the thistle.
-Galax (Galax urceolata) For its round and therefore balanced, shape-hope this gets conferred to the couple-not the roundness, but the balance :-).
-Lovegrass (Eragrostis spectabilis) of course!  Persistent stems after last fall's bloom-very nice ethereal background plant
-Rabbit's foot clover (Trifolium arvense) For good luck, naturally, no rabbit's killed for a vegetarian bride.
-Goat's rue (Tephrosia virginica) Roots are used in ball play by Cherokee people-perhaps to confer strength as the roots are incredibly strong-much needed for married life!
-White wild indigo (Baptisia alba) White for the bride in a long wand-like bloom (we all need a little magic!)
-Barbara's buttons (2) (Marshallia obovata) which are pollinated by Euphoria beetles (how appropriate!) in honor of the entomologist bride.
-Fawn's breath (Gillenia trifoliata) Another scientific name that has been used is Porteranthus-in honor of the new couple's dog Porter (their other is named Cole-and I just couldn't see putting that in a bouquet!).
-Log fern (Dryopteris celsa), which my friend and owner of Crow Dog Native Ferns says is a fertile hybrid between two different ferns.  I know you're probably grinning, but this is balanced by the Queen Anne's lace, used in Watauga county as birth control.  It's their choice, not the flowers.

The groom's boutineer:
-Rabbit's foot clover
-Love grass
-Barbara's buttons (2)

Other boutineers included all of the plants of the grooms except for Barbara's buttons.  Really, euphoria is for the couple--for them alone!  I traded Barbara's buttons for climbing hydrangea (Decumaria barbarens)-this is the plant that the groom accidentally cut from the bride's cabin-fitting that the men should wear it to help them remember. :-) I made a number of corsages for mothers and friends.  I added Fawn's breath and love grass to theirs as a way of tying the women to both bride and groom.  You'll note that the men were not tied uniquely to the bride's bouquet-instead were a reflection of the groom's.  To my mind, it is the sensibility of women and their wisdom that best shepherd a couple into their new life together.  Men have contributions in other ways, she says with great love to the men in her life.

Two flower girl baskets were made:
-Queen Anne's lace
-Catawba rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense)
-Goat's rue
-Fawn's breath
-White baptisia
-White penstemon (Penstemon digitalis)
-Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia)
-Rabbit's foot clover
-Tied with green ribbons on aged white baskets

Two large baskets were also made to accompany the couple to the top of the mountain where they said their vows.  The baskets were planted with log ferns (Dryopteris celsa), maindenhair ferns (Adiantum pedatum), silvery glade fern (Deparia acrostichoides) and either bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) or Jumpseed (Polygonum virginianum).  I used leaf litter as a top mulch. Ferns were from Crow Dog Ferns-such good spirit in them!  The rest, I grew from seed, some harvested with a good friend.  These plants I chose mostly because I thought they'd grow well at the bride's cabin-a good wedding gift for nature friends. Interpretation up to them-here's hoping it takes years in the saying.

Practical knowledge for your own bouquets
So, of the flowers above, the hardiest were the thistle (though I did wire the flowers)-they lasted 3 days in vases outside on my cool porch; white baptisia; galax (of course, well known in the floral industry); Queen Anne's lace (although younger flowers open up more as time goes by); Fawn's breath; Lovegrass (it's dried anyway); rabbit's foot clover; log fern.  Catawba rhodo and laurel did not hold up well.

I also made vases/baskets for the wedding party tables.  They consisted of remnants of the above and more that I collected on my way to the party including: Cigar tree (Catalpa speciosa-did not last well); Chrysanthemum leucanthemum (lasted pretty well); ragwort (Packera spp.)-held up OK, not great; Trillium catesbaei, T. luteum (held up well foliage-wise, the flowers were on their way out anyway-I just pulled off the petals); Allegheny spurge (Pachysandra procumbens); purple clover (Trifolium purpureum)-held up well; weeping willow (Salix babylonica-held up well); sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua-held up well); mulberry (Morus alba-weeping-held up well and others.  I had the good help of friends of the bride and we wrapped all in brown and green ribbons with large burlap ribbon decorating the posts of the barn.  Satin and burlap ribbons seemed appropriate as one can be reused and another can go back to the earth quickly. Just as these ribbons and flowers, through me came to be connected to other lives, so, too will they find their way to new connections-as I hope all of this inspired.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


This video was created during a workshop held by the Center for Digital Storytelling (out of Berkeley, CA but in Durham, NC) that my husband and I attended (thanks, Barbara). I wrote the story and Jeremy edited. Pictures are largely mine with additions from Kathy Kegley. For the workshop, we had to create a story and this one just needed to come out...

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A cornucopia of mulberries, politicians and blue wolves

I found that weeping mulberry outside Long Hall pretty early on. Mulberries, when perfectly ripe, are really one of my favorite fruits. I frequently robbed that tree, but in general, have never found a tree with enough fruit with which to do anything-other than quick but delightful snacking. Taking a nod from the campus landscape (might I add, one of the few times I would-why do people insist on so much symmetry and so little diversity in built environments!), I bought a weeping mulberry for my yard. Who knew they were dioecious-so THAT explains why I've never gotten fruit! :-) Oh well, still good for papermaking (another story)!

A couple of weeks ago I dropped off some Cherokee flour corn seeds for a friend who lives in Pendleton. Stay with me now-you'll see the connections, soon. She has a pretty big collection of Richard Burnside paintings. I've known about his work for awhile since they're in a lot of shops in the area and then my love of (certain) folkart. I was asking her about him as she'd bought her paintings directly from the artist. Well, that's the preferred way anyway, isn't it? I mean, otherwise, you infuse it with too much of your own juju and not enough of the artist's (in my humble opinion).

This past Friday, I met the indigo girls (another story to come) for lunch in downtown Pendleton. We met earlier to talk about our project and meet with Senator Graham who was opening an office in small town Pendleton. We had intended to talk with the Senator and maybe even give him a piece of our minds-given the state of state here (no thanks to inept Governor). Well, we never did make it that far-really, too much else to catch up on! But thanks to the crowd that gathered, I never would have found that mulberry. The crowd forced me to park away from the town square-and there it was. The most magnificently covered with fruit mulberry tree I'd ever seen. Chalk it up to our amazing spring rains this year-quite a good respite given the droughts of previous years. Soooo, I plotted to harvest.

In the meantime, we finished up our talk, visited with the local textile shop (who knew in this small town-a senator's office and a shop with international textiles?!) and made our way over to the bakery for lunch. And there, sitting outside was Richard Burnside, drawing my blue wolf. I chatted with him briefly, dropped some $ and then went on to finish up conversation with my friends.

After I got back to my car, I popped in to ask permission to gather the fruit. "Normally, they just all spoil-nobody uses them"- according to the store owner, so I was free to collect (birds aside-doubt they would have approved). Couldn't contain my excitement and so I called Bradshaw and we mutually plotted a harvest.

Saturday came and I managed to talk Jeremy into helping. As I was walking off toward the tree, I noticed Burnside sitting on a bench across from the mulberry. Since I had sheet (for collecting) in hand, I started talking to him and told him what I was doing. He urged me to be careful, cause the devil might be hiding in the tree and scratch my face. I told him I wasn't worried because I had a blue wolf to protect me.

Bradshaw joined us shortly and we collectively gathered a few gallons of berries, leaving off with promises to share the spoils of our labor. I came home and it took a day or so to have the time to deal with the berries, but I managed to boil down a gallon or more of juice. I looked at a few recipes and then when I ran out of sugar decided to ditch the recipes and go by gut. The flavor of the mulberries wasn't as strong as some years-and maybe that decision to leave stems on didn't help-so I mixed it with grape concentrate. I had 12 1/2 pints to fill and did so with maybe a tablespoon left over-gut must have been on track that night.

1:5 cup ratio grape to mulberry, 7 to 8 c. sugar, pectin-2 packages (add it first, add sugar after a boil, then boil the whole thing for a minute-good rolling boil. Skim off the foam and divi-up. Look for directions on hot water baths for jelly-good way to preserve. Fantastic flavor, even if a little over grapey.

Hope you can use the recipe. In the meantime, I'll ponder the blue purple color of the mulberry on my hands, blue wolves, the indigo girls and my mood about the politics of this indigo state that too often bleeds red...

Chaotic Gardening and more

Blogging on a life connected....

The term chaotic gardening grew out of the connectedness of a few close gardening/nature friends as we designed and delivered a conference on native plants in the landscape. But its roots are go back a little further with me.

As 'chief weeder' at a native plants garden in Highlands, I saw myself not as the creator of landscapes, but instead as the curator of an exhibit of plants-responsible for proper placement and lighting. While I certainly did transplant new plants to new places, most of my work was uncovering what was already there and giving it the space it needed to grow, thrive and become a major subject of the painting that is a garden bed. This was, perhaps, easier in a place where diversity is such an obvious mainstay and where the moisture is forever encouraging growth of all kinds (including my own).

For me, thinking about the bed as a finished painting helped me get from a lovely chaotic tangle of species, to a slightly more orderly tangle that allowed impatient human eyes to visualize the splendor that was already there. This meant removing select plants-and so knowing species in juvenile (Thanks, Bill) and mature stages is imperative. The removal of select plants, if chosen properly, allowed for another species to take over the space-even if that takes time. Knowing which plants to bring forward or outward in this way requires an eye into the future bloom and growth patterns. Somedays, it was a stop and a look-bending down to remove one representative of a certain species. Other times, as the summer grew its hair out, it was simply an adjustment of the way in which the bed was visualized. Critical reflection was always part of the path. The reveal was, in large part, up to the natural components of the system. I simply provided the light to help human eyes see.

As a young scientist, the concept of chaos resonated with me. From these gardens that were part of my life (I still visit) to the everyday changes of my family, life and house-I am always shuffling between order and disorder. Though the term has largely fallen out of use, it still makes my heart sing. On the other hand, nested non-linear complex systems describes it for those with impatient human brains.