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Banana Flowers and Other Edible Parts

22 May

Being a bit less mobile than usual, I thought I’d use the opportunity to choose a photo I’ve previously taken and see if I can learn more about the subject. What you see below is commonly called a banana flower or banana blossom (photo taken at the United States Botanic Garden). I’ve always been struck by this part of the plant, a deep-red appendage that dangles below the bunches of bananas. Though we like to think of the banana plant as a tree, it is technically a perennial herb, albeit a really big one; it dies down to the ground after the plant flowers and produces fruit. The inner part of the stem of the plant (which is actually a false stem consisting of leaf sheaths) is edible, as are parts of the flowers–they are considered vegetables and are popular in Asian and tropical cuisines, where they are used in salads, curries, stir fries, and other dishes.


The banana “flower” seen in the photo above is actually the lowest part of an inflorescence consisting of layers of bracts (the petal- or leaf-like parts) that cover rows of  flowers. The female flowers are higher up and can develop into fruit (bananas). Once that happens, the inflorescence elongates and produces a terminal male bud. Here, the redder (and tougher) outermost bracts of that bud have opened upward, revealing yellow-tipped male flowers underneath and paler closed bracts below.

Different parts of the banana flower (or bud) can be eaten: the innermost bracts, the florets (once the stamens and tough covers have been removed), and the inner core, or heart. The tougher outer bracts are often used as serving plates for dishes made with the other parts of the banana flower. I don’t have easy access to banana flowers, but if you do and want to experiment with them, here are some resources:

To read about the ornamental Golden Lotus Banana/Chinese Dwarf Banana, see this post. To read about the difference between Musa (bananas), Strelitzia, and Heliconia, see this post.

And here are some additional banana-related photos:

1) A banana leaf unfurling at the Eden Project in England. Each leaf emerges from the center of the banana plant in the form of a rolled cylinder. Once the last leaf has emerged, the plant produces the inflorescence, which starts off pointing skyward, but then falls over and dangles as it gets heavier and the female flowers develop into bananas.
2 ) Banana bunches on the plant (with the terminal bud having fallen off). Some bunches can contain 200-300 bananas each; the largest one recorded by the Guinness Book of World Records contained 473 bananas and weighed 287 pounds.
3) Banana transport in Rwanda.

  

The Challenges of Gardening and Cooking on Crutches

17 May

This title is misleading because it sounds like I actually have been able to do some gardening and cooking since breaking my ankle three weeks ago and being diagnosed with deep vein thrombosis three days ago. Sadly, that has not been the case. Hence this lovely photo of one of the many weeds that have now taken up residence in the garden. And the absence of any photos (or blog posts) pertaining to new garden initiatives or new dishes. But I can write about things happening in the garden of their own accord (future posts), as well as recent lessons learned, many of which involve crutches (this post).

Weeds

1. When crossing a street, look left, right, and DOWN. Or else your ankle could go one way and you could go the other, with unhappy results.
2. You will develop a love-hate (mostly hate) relationship with your crutches.
3. Crutches are made to transport mainly one thing–you. But you have been used to transporting multiple things yourself with the help of both your hands and feet, one of which can no longer be used and the other three of which are valiantly trying to to keep you upright and semi-mobile. This poses certain challenges.
4. Namely, how to transport hot beverages. A beverage tray for crutches would really come in handy. I was able to carry a number of things on crutches via the-tuck-the-item-into-my-waistband-and-hope-my-pants-don’t-fall-down method, but I didn’t dare try that with a cup of tea.
5. Not being able to use one foot means you will develop really good balancing skills on the other one. This came in handy when I leaned over on one foot to pull a few weeds from the edge of our patio the other day, though the neighbors may have thought I was practicing some bizarre new form of Tai Chi. The downside to all this balancing on one foot: your injured leg muscles will disappear while the muscles on your other leg will fill out quite nicely, leading to a lovely asymmetrical look.
6. If you are like me, crutches will also allow you to discover muscles in your arms that you didn’t know existed. That’s another plus: increased upper body strength for improved gardening efficiency. But if the muscles in your injured leg ever start aching, pay attention. What I thought was a calf muscle that was strained from limping around too much three weeks post fracture turned out to be a blood clot.
7. If you should ever have the misfortune to end up with deep vein thrombosis after a fracture, you will find that all things considered, the fracture might actually be the less painful/scary of the two. Part of the reason is the blood-thinning medication you have to inject into your own stomach twice a day, which feels as if you were being stung by a bee each time. It is really not fair to bees.
8. Finally and most importantly, be immensely thankful when your body works well. All the many parts, including the humble foot, make even the simplest things possible–yet it’s so easy to take those parts for granted.
9. Ditto for the family members and friends/coworkers who turned into nurses, chauffeurs, and advocates at a moment’s notice. They make everything possible, too.

Birth of an Allium ‘Purple Sensation’

10 May

The thing I love most about this time of year is the process by which new flower buds slowly open up and reveal their hidden treasures. I particularly love watching my Allium hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’ as the buds break free from the papery bracts protecting them and explode into a profusion of perky florets. The allium ‘flower’ is actually a cluster of much smaller flowers (florets) atop a stem–this type of arrangement is called an inflorescence.


The papery bract begins to split open under the strain of the growing florets.


The florets start to take on color.


The emerging inflorescence, seen from above.

  
Individual florets begin to bloom.                Close-up of a floret.


The newly emerged inflorescence, seen from above.


Allium hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’ in bloom.

 

Weekly Photo Challenge: Spring

3 May

When I think of Spring, I think of flowers and new life.  This Tulipa “Ballerina” is one the the earliest and cheeriest flowers in my garden, and a look inside the tulip reveals some essentials about plant reproduction.


This close-up focuses on the three-lobed stigma (the top-most section of the tulip’s female reproductive parts, known collectively as the pistil), which catches pollen via its sticky and fuzzy surface. The pollen then travels down the tube-like style to the ovary where  fertilization takes place (if the pollen came from a tulip plant), ultimately leading to the production of seeds. The six pollen-covered anthers (the top-most parts of the male reproductive organs, known collectively as the stamens) are blurred in the background; the stamens emanate from the base of the pistil.

Tulips are considered “perfect” flowers because they contain both male and female reproductive organs. They can self pollinate, but can also cross pollinate in the wild with the help of bees and other pollinators. Alas, most commercial tulips, including this one, are sterile hybrids. But the good thing is that tulips also reproduce via their bulbs, which allows gardeners to enjoy them anew each spring.

Double, Double, Toil and Shovel

14 Apr

One good thing about gardening is that while certain things need to be done throughout the year, I believe (hope) there is significant flexibility in when those things can be done (otherwise, I’m in trouble). There is one big exception to this philosophy: Easter. It is our one and only gardening deadline–an immutable date by which the garden must receive a serious makeover in order to present its best (or at least, not its worst) side to the guests who will come to our house for Easter. It helps that this excuse forces us to give the garden a really good start to the season, in compensation for any benign neglect that may be headed its way later.

This spring-cleaning mania also applies to Schnauzer 1 and Schnauzer 2–without fail, they get nice new haircuts so that our guests do not mistakenly assume we have taken to rearing sheep. After four hours of on-and-off grooming yesterday that neither they nor I appreciated very much, they now look like leaner and more refined versions of their former selves. They also look naked, but we are all getting used to it.

The garden, too, looks simultaneously neater and more naked. The protective fall leaves have now been replaced with a tidier layer of mulch. The emerging plants are still maintaining their distance from their neighbors; at at this time of year there is only a foreshadowing of the lushness of summer. But the garden’s current low-key appearance is deceptive. I planted or transplanted more than 130 plants during the past two weekends.

This is admittedly a bit nuts. I have a tendency to move plants around before they are in their fully active growth mode,  if I can still move them easily. Sometimes it is for altruistic reasons (to save plants  in danger of being overtaken by their neighbors) and sometimes for aesthetic ones (something else may look better there, or vice versa). But in recent days, I also replaced plants that did not survive our rough winter; filled in a new, long and narrow flower bed alongside our new-ish patio (populated entirely by some of the aforementioned transplanted plants: Montauk Daisy, roses, and Switchgrass); decommissioned the rose garden and turned it into a vegetable garden; covered a sloped area with ground cover; and installed a bird bath.

The stage is now set; time for the actors to arrive.

FB2  
New (transplanted) flower bed                           Robin enjoying new bird bath

Flowers Above

27 Mar

Recently, when walking to and from work or through my garden or around my neighborhood, I have tended to keep my eyes at ground level, on the alert for early blooms and signs of spring. But this evening, in the magical hour before sunset, I looked up… and was immediately rewarded by the sight of emerging flowers on local trees, a glorious sight indeed–and a reminder that good things also come from above.


Red Maple flowers


Emerging Cornelian Cherry Dogwood flower cluster


Red Maple flower cluster, photographed on black table

The Remains of the Season

22 Mar

Last weekend, a stroll around the National Arboretum revealed that, yes, spring has arrived and may soon work its way a few miles north and visit my garden, too:


Dwarf Dutch Iris


Crocus

While I am waiting for Spring 2014 to put in an appearance in my garden and usher in the new , I wanted to give a shout out to the some of the remains of 2013, all beautiful in their own way:

  
Dried Pomegranates, US Botanic Garden


Rose of Sharon seed pod, my garden


Azalea seed pod, my garden


Dried Fruit of the Sweetgum tree, US National Arboretum

Witch Hazel: A Friend in the Garden

1 Mar

More snow is forecast for Sunday/Monday. Mother Nature has been toying with us this season; it has been a dreary, harsh winter for those of us living in the Washington DC area, where winter is not usually so bad. Long-suffering friends in colder climes scoff at our feeble complaints, but we are all well and truly tired of winter and are longing for spring.

Which is why it is so nice to have some Witch Hazel in the garden: it blooms just when you have had enough of winter, and gives you hope that spring is not too far away. At the moment, this lovely Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Birgit’  is the only bright spot  in my garden, which remains braced for more bad news. Hamamelis x intermedia hybrids are crosses between Japanese and Chinese witch hazels. ‘Birgit’ is one of the darkest red (actually, purplish red) cultivars; I bought it for its deep color and also because ‘Birgit’ is the name of an old friend. My Witch Hazel is still quite small, but already it is living up to its namesake; it is a great friend to have in the garden, especially at this time of year.

  

Cypress Knees

14 Dec

I’d heard of a bee’s knees, but not a tree’s knees. Turns out cypress trees have knees, as we discovered when walking through the gardens at Historic London Town last weekend. We rounded a corner and stumbled upon an eerie landscape: a tall Bald Cypress tree surrounded by what looked like little stumps or treelets poking up from a blanket of leaves. It was almost as if we had been transported to the Island of Misfit Trees.

Turns out these little* woody projections are called cypress knees, and they are a bit of a mystery. The knees grow vertically from the tree’s roots, but no one quite agrees on what function they serve. Normally, they are found in swampy areas. This Bald Cypress and its knees were in Historic London Town’s Bog Garden–a very moist area, but not one that was under water (or at least not when we were there).  One theory is that the knees may help get oxygen to the tree’s roots, especially in the case of trees that are growing in several feet of water. But scientists who tested this theory found that the knees aren’t very good conveyors of oxygen, as one might expect from what is essentially a very woody stump. Another theory is that the knees provide the tree with stability. But no one really knows for sure; there is another school of thought suggesting that perhaps these knees serve no purpose at all…. Except to keep us wondering.


*These knees are still relatively little — but they can actually get quite tall.

Troopers in the Autumn Garden

23 Nov

I have sadly neglected the garden. I’d like to blame it on work and family obligations, but the real reason is that I find the autumn clean-up far less satisfying than the spring clean-up. In the spring, when I gather up the detritus from winter, I am delighted to see tiny new shoots pushing through the earth underneath. I love seeing new buds unfurling. The atmosphere in the garden is of one of eager anticipation. The prep work then is like priming a canvas before painting in order to set the stage for a masterpiece to emerge. It is a fantasy, I admit–but in June, when viewed at just the right angle in just the right light by someone who is squinting slightly, the garden does look somewhat like an Impressionist work of art.

In the autumn, the garden is a much sorrier sight (well, my garden is). And the clean-up then feels more like chore than delight. But there is no camouflage in the winter, so if anything, making sure the garden looks neat and tidy is even more important. So what did I do today? Did I spend hours pruning, deadheading, weeding, or transplanting? No, I procrastinated–I took photos of the few remaining spots of color and bits of interest, telling myself tomorrow is another day.

Here are a few autumnal troopers: Echinacea ‘Southern Belle,’ a Montauk Daisy featuring a slightly lethargic bee, and Hidcote Lavender. Plus, something to look forward to: buds on Witch Hazel ‘Birgit,’ ready to burst forth very early next year for some welcome late-winter color.