bitter greens

bitter greens

This time of year, I think of Rapunzel. I think of her mother, pregnant with her, so desperate for the taste of a particular salad green, thought to be Valerianella locusta, known as corn salad, lamb’s lettuce, mâche, but also perhaps parsley, ramps or rampion, that her husband was willing to give her unborn babe to the woman whose garden he’d been caught plundering for the sake of his wife’s health.

In Philip Pullman’s wonderful edition of the Brothers Grimm, it’s lamb’s lettuce growing in a neighbouring garden owned by a powerful witch:

One day the woman was standing at that window, and she saw a bed of lamb’s lettuce, or rapunzel. It looked so fresh and green that she longed to taste some, and this longing grew stronger every day, so that eventually she became really ill.

I also long for greens in early spring. Not the spring mix from plastic clamshells — somehow all those tiny leaves taste exactly the same and that taste is innocuous — or the bagged arugula, a most beautiful herb redolent of pepper and walnuts that needs sunlight and a bit of chill to really come into its own. I grow a couple of kinds but my favourite is one of the Diplotaxis spp., a wild-ish green with ferny leaves and a delicious spicy flavour. There are some 12th c. Italian texts called the Trotula, possibly the work of a woman doctor, that are considered the first specifically gynecological treatises and the wild arugula appears in them as a treatment for dysentery. So maybe arugula is a contender for the green that Rapunzel’s mother longed for? The garden her window overlooked, tended by that witch, was very likely a medicinal garden, and the witch was probably a herbalist.  There was wisdom in the growing of a variety of greens. Science now “tells” us what gardeners have always known: these plants contain so many important vitamins and elements necessary for heart health, muscle health, digestive function, vision, and more.

Yesterday I planted a bed of early greens. I have kale already and some miner’s lettuce —

miners lettuce.jpg

— as well as a blood-red sorrel. There are dandelions appearing by the garden paths and I planted their wild cousin, Cicoria selvatica da campo, for a reliable source of those bitter leaves. A newly-planted bed looks both plain and hopeful. Tiny seeds lovingly strewn in a shallow furrow, soil pressed over, labels tied onto bamboo sticks, a daily visit (or maybe even hourly) to see if anything has sprouted yet, and then one day, this:


And the greens are easy to grow. Many self-seed. That miner’s lettuce is growing in a tub on a deck by my kitchen so I can snip leaves for small dishes and there are seedlings coming up in neighbouring pots too. I also planted a row of it so we can have larger amounts of it in salad. The arugula self-sows and that Diplotaxis is a short-lived perennial in my garden; I’ve planted more because I never know how many of last year’s plants will have survived the winter (and this winter was severe). Kale — well, it’s everywhere. I’d like to grow watercress but I don’t have a damp enough area. I do know several places to gather it though. And it’s another contender for the plant Rapunzel’s mother craved. Which makes me wonder by Rapunzel’s father didn’t have a small garden patch of his own?

“looking for the best views”

All night rain fell steadily, the sound of it on our metal roof so welcome after the weeks and weeks of drought. There was sporadic rain here and there – a brief shower or two in May, one in June, a short period last week — but never anything sustained. So to lie awake in the night and hear it, after a day of it yesterday, is to imagine the trees drinking deeply, the big pails at the down-spouts filling, the beans (oh, the beans) outgrowing their poles and reaching for the sky.

I was up in the night, working on this essay-in-progress I’m calling “Ballast”. Fittingly, I sent Forrest and Manon off to Ottawa the other day with a little wrapped length of horseradish root for their garden (and of course I’d shown them the tomatillo plants I’d brought home from their garden in May, tiny little volunteers perhaps an inch long which I’d dug and wrapped in damp paper towel, placing each one in a pot almost immediately after arriving home; they’re now 7 feet tall and laden with fruit). And when Angie and Sahand left yesterday morning, they packed a pot of small kale plants, another of arugula, and another of mint, mint from John’s mother’s garden, into their car. They have a balcony garden in Victoria and now know that it’s fatal to mention that they might like some salad greens for it…Brendan, Cristen, and Kelly managed to get away without any roots or greens but their time will come.

Part of the research I’ve been doing for this essay revolves around the plants emigrants brought to the New World. I’m growing “Black Krim” tomatoes , originally from the Crimea, and every time I eat one, I wonder if my grandfather’s family in Bukovina grew tomatoes. I know they grew potatoes. Potatoes were central to their diet and among the tiny hoard of stories I have about my grandparents, there is one I particularly treasure. My grandmother was pregnant with my father and it was October, in Drumheller. My grandparents were digging the last of their potatoes when my grandmother went into labour. (My father was the tenth child she gave birth to.) “Aren’t you going to finish your row?” asked my grandfather. I wish had some small remnant of those original potatoes for our own soil here.

And tomatillos – well, they originated in pre-Columbian Mexico. I love them. In winter we often have a simple supper of eggs poached in green salsa which we eat with homemade corn tortillas cooked on an ancient cast iron griddle I was given many years ago by an elderly woman who had no children herself and liked it that John and I (in her words) “knew what to do with our hands”. (She was impressed we’d built our own house.) I was very surprised to see how many tiny tomatillo volunteers sprouting in an Ottawa garden after the long cold winter but plants, like people, find ways to adapt to new places.

Forrest was able to get me a copy of an article I’d come across a reference to and which I thought would be useful for this essay. The article, by John Murray Gibbon, was published in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada in 1923, and is entitled “European Seeds in the Canadian Garden”. Imagine my surprise when I read it and discovered it was about literary seeds, not botanical ones. And the literary references are pretty dull. But there are moments when I realize the trajectories of stories, gardens, and memory are more similar than I expected and the article prompted one of those moments:

The peach tree carried into Northern India by Chinese settlers and introduced into Greece by Alexander the Great, now blooms in many an orchard in the Niagara Peninsula. So the seeds of literature share in human migrations from the Old World to the New, and where they find congenial circumstances and proper cultivation, there they flourish.

Yesterday morning, before Angie and Sahand left, I saw John sitting with them and showing Sahand an album of photographs of our early years here, prompted by questions about how we came to build our house. I was in and out of the living room but loved hearing the stories again – how we came with a tiny baby (Forrest) and lived in a tent on weekends, in all weathers, mixing concrete in a wheelbarrow for the footings, using water in a clear hose as part of our method of finding level, deciding where windows would go by walking the framed platforms and looking for the best views.

So now to try to wrangle all this into an essay, a few new lines added to the old stories and the seeds of those tomatillos enriching our compost for future gardens, winter dinners.

nailing the floor


tonight’s salad

Tonight’s salad is just-picked baby kale, some dandelion leaves, some blood-red sorrel, a few leaves of arugula, and some strands of garlic leaf from volunteers (which won’t form bulbs so I’ll use them in salad or pasta). Some toasted hazelnuts. And the most beautiful dressing of an organic Bosc pear pureed with olive oil, Dijon mustard, a little lemon juice, and some lovely white pear-infused balsamic vinegar I brought from California before Christmas. And if you look closely at the salad bowl, you’ll see it has fish embedded like fossils in the green Spanish glass. Because the sun came out this afternoon after torrential rain last night (and a wild chorus of frogs singing so loudly I closed the bathroom window), it seems like a good time to celebrate the beauty of the season. And its small bounties…

late march salad