"This is the rare month, the only month, when I cannot tell time by what is in bloom. The botanical city is on lockdown. Street trees are naked, the sidewalks are tightlipped and weed-free. Discarded Christmas trees cast adrift on curbs weep dry needles, waiting for trash pick up. Concrete and metal and rust and empty earth are laid bare. The city is stripped. The only thing in bloom on the exposed streets is graffiti..."
God bless the grass that grows through the crack.
They roll the concrete over it to try and keep it back.
The concrete gets tired of what it has to do,
It breaks and it buckles and the grass grows through,
God bless the grass.
God bless the truth that fights toward the sun,
They roll the lies over it and think that it is done.
It moves through the ground and reaches for the air,
And after a while it is growing everywhere,
God bless the grass.
God bless the grass that grows through cement.
It's green and it's tender and it's easily bent.
But after a while it lifts up its head,
For the grass is living and the stone is dead,
And God bless the grass.
God bless the grass that's gentle and low,
The roots they are deep and the will is to grow.
And God bless the truth, the friend of the poor,
And the wild grass growing round the poor man's door,
God bless the grass.
Malvinia Reynolds, 1964 - written in reaction to the assassination of John F. Kennedy as sung by Pete Seeger
I hadn't made these muffins for years. But, invited to a brunch upstairs at Wolfgang's (where Champagne and prosecco and wonderful espresso flowed, and where his friend Marjam whipped up batches of Dutch poffertjes), I baked a dozen and carried them up, still warm. They disappeared before I could eat one. So yesterday I made some more, just for me. The joys of being a grown up.
I ate three for breakfast. They are very, very good. The jam is D'Arbo (sour cherry). Might have something to do with it
This was the original recipe, with an egg and ordinary flour, unlike the version I posted at 66 Square Feet (the Food) some years ago. It comes from the pages of the handwritten recipe book my mom gave me when I left South Africa, and its origin is The Silwood Kitchen'sBreads, Buns, Cakes and Cookies, printed in South Africa a long time ago. It is one of the best baking books I know.
I added a teaspoon of mahlab to the dry ingredients, and after scooping a little batter into each muffin cup in the tray, I added some sour cherry jam, then more batter to cover.
When you have made them once, you can make them again in your sleep. Throw everything in a bowl, mix, plop in tray, and twenty minutes later, scarfscarfscarf.
Come and explore the botanical underbelly of the city, hiding in plain site in our forests and on our shorelines.
I could call them foraging walks, because there will definitely be good looking edibles, but these walks are really about old-fashioned botanizing, plant identification and exploring the lesser-known wilds of the largest city in the United States. This is a perspective of the megalopolis that is quite unexpected, for visitors and locals alike.
Here's the rundown, and to book a spot, please visit the Paypal buttons for each walk. Walks are limited to 15 people. Check the links in the directions for a Google Map with pinpoint at our meeting spots.
Dutchman's breeches - Inwood
Inwood Field Garlic Walk 29 March, 11am - 3pm
Late March and the forest floor in Inwood is still crackly with brown winter leaves. But the spicebush may have woken into bloom, violets might have opened, and there may be an owl... There are edible and invasive daylilies here, as well as the notorious yet delicious garlic mustard. Field garlic, one of the earliest spring edibles to appear, is one of the most versatile of all wild plants and "weeds." Cook it, pickle it, make oil from its leaves.
On one side, the Spuyten Duyvil, separating Manhattan island from the mainland, and on the other, the mighty Hudson, separating us from Governor Christie.
It's one of my favourite spring walks.
Pack a lunch for a forest picnic. Bathroom at start and end of walk.
We meet at 11am sharp at the entrance at Seaman Avenue and Isham, returning there by 3pm or a little earlier. The closest subway is the A to 207th. More details for confirmed walkers closer to the time.
Trout lilies - Central Park
Central Park Spring Ramble 26 April, 11am - 1pm
The Ramble is Central Park's wooded heart. In April the forest floor should be sprinkled with white violets and shooting stars, trout lilies and the far less welcome but rampantly yummy Japanese knotweed. Will there be pokeweed? Come for a two hour stroll and learn to spot and identify various wild edibles and native plants.
Come and explore Dead Horse Bay, the landfill that was used as a garbage dump for late 19th and early 20th century New York City. On our way to the old bottle-littered beach we'll find pokeweed and milkweed, wild lettuce and black cherry trees (come back in August for the fruit!). On the shoreline are indigenous bayberry and sea rocket.
Pack a lunch, bring a camera, notepad and hat. Bathroom at start and finish of walk, at Floyd Bennett Field.
We meet 12pm at street level on the triangle between Flatbush and Nostrand. The subway stop is Flatbush/Brooklyn College - the end of the line for the 2/5. Then it's a 10 minute bus ride to the wilds of Jamaica Bay.
Jewelweed, nature's antidote to poison ivy
Inwood Mid-Spring Walk 17 May, 12.30pm - 2.30pm
Back to Inwood, which will have changed a lot since early April. Expect to see pokeweed, burdock, the elusive nettle and many other wild edibles. Our walk will take us up the hill, along the top, and down over the Hudson River. Learn to ID poison ivy and where to find its country-remedy antidote, jewelweed.
Bring water and a snack (although one will be provided). There is a bathroom at the start and end of the walk.
We meet at 12.30pm sharp at the entrance at Seaman Avenue and Isham, returning there by 2.30pm or a little earlier. The closest subway is the A to 207th. More details for confirmed walkers closer to the time.
The Ramble is Central Park's wooded heart. In late May the forest will be fully leafed out and filled with birdsong and late spring blooms. Come for a two hour stroll and learn to spot and identify wild edibles such as invasive Japanese knotweed, indigenous but weedy pokeweed, and Northeastern natives like May apples and wild ginger.
I stumbled out of The Cave (the Frenchman's new name for our wintery apartment), my head still filled with thoughts of spring foraging, to shop at The Wild Olive. New Yorkers, obsessed with snow-clearing, had salted the sidewalks and it was a snow-free trudge.
I found good-looking chard, and when I asked whether they might have any organic ground beef lurking, they said, Why yes, we do, and opened a just-delivered box. Beef from boxes... So I got that, too.
Back at home this was all turned into a vaguely Middle Eastern style pizza. No tomato sauce, the chard wilted with lemon and some salt, the beef seasoned with cumin, sumac and pomegranate molasses. The crust was especially good (I knew that because the Frenchman started putting butter on his), which is frustrating, as I just tossed, without measuring. Interestingly, I barely kneaded it. There's a head scratcher.
I work in the bedroom today. It's a beautiful, big, white room - I am so tired of the Darkness on the northern side. The birds on the terrace, which is beside the bedroom, delight me, and I can see them through the window. They actually sing! The snow is still deep out there. I waded through it in bare feet to replenish this morning's feeder. That was interesting.
There are drills and hammer-bangings in the walls. The landlord's never-ending yet intermittent construction project. Wasn't water torture intermittent? There is a new leak under the sink, the heaters come on in the wrong room, even if they are turned off, and I am fending off mental collapse. But we have a working buzzer after three months and tomorrow the awful bath will be reglazed. The cat will go upstairs to Wolfgang while they work - to escape The Men. Now if only we could persuade the shower to become more than a mere warm trickle. These things are sent to test us.
Then again, the forced narcissus bulbs on my desk are beginning to bloom.
So there is that.
* Wait, there's more good news. Our friend Frank has found a pig us to share. Locally raised and slaughtered. It will probably be from this farm. Conventionally raised pigs lead terrible lives. Don't eat 'em.
There will be more tomorrow. There is more, now. But Now is dark.
I went snow shopping, down Lenox Avenue.
After negotiating the sawdust-sprinkled chute that leads into Fine Fare, I found in the produce section bunches of culantro - not cilantro - which is a new favourite herb. Eryngium foetidum. So whoever named it really didn't like it.
Some white chap.
And it is like pungent cilantro. Which many people loathe.
Do you know that what North America calls cilantro (coriander - Coriandrum sativum - for the English and Commonwealth) is considered native to England (and southern Europe)? Yet it is associated almost exclusively with Latin American and Southeast Asian culinary traditions.
My culantro become a raw sauce, with cilantro, lime slices, sugar, a load of black pepper, garlic and lime juice, for chicken roasted on a bed of sweet potatoes.
Juggling shopping bags, umbrella for in-the-face snow, gloves for freezing hands and camera was tricky.
The backlit fire of native thimbleberry - Rubus parviflorus - in Central Park's North Woods.
Last year's pokeweed. Phytolacca americana. There were a lot of dry canes about, excellent clues to delicious shoots in spring.
I am very excited about two invitations to forage in the spring - in the Delaware Valley (the wilds of Pennsylvania), and in the Hudson Valley. Add local Japanese knotweed, field garlic and garlic mustard, which I find in northern Manhattan and in the Bronx, and a trip out to the Catskills, and I am really, really looking forward to the greening of the year.
Funny weather. I mean, isn't it always? It is a mild (by polar vortex standards, which recalibrated everything I knew about cold) 38'F/3'C - acceptable in the January sun. I walked out onto the deck in bare feet to photograph the blueberry buds.
It occurred to me, in the middle of the night - as these things do - that I will need another blueberry bush if this one is to set good fruit. Cross pollination with a different cultivar. In Brooklyn our neighbour, inspired by ours, planted one on her next door terrace. She occupies the same space in terms of square feet. Her rent, she told me, shortly before we left, was $600 less than ours. And ours was set to be raised by another $600 per month.
Whaddaya gonna do?
Well. We did it.
Perhaps I can give a blueberry to our landlord to plant in his garden. Or perhaps I just have to squeeze it in on the terrace. And does it matter? It occurred to me, too, that perhaps I should sketch the layout of the terrace the way I would for a client. Watercolours and everything. I have rarely applied the principles - if you can call them that - I use to design design gardens to my own efforts, which are a far more loose and frankly undisciplined eruption of instinct, whimsy and necessity. Like my mother I tend towards plant collection, never able to say no to something new and interesting, or simply in bloom at that moment.
I think the rosemary - that had survived a winter or two on the Brooklyn rooftop, is toast. The figs are both alive - I scratched their branches and saw green. One clematis has put out shoots. Idiot. But amazing, anyway. The roses never dropped their last leaves, which droop like camouflage scales from their branches where new red buds are waiting to break.
Seeds have arrived. Low tech. The shiso is to send to Lily, and one packet for myself. I didn't plant any last year and regretted it. The nasturtiums are ostensibly for leaves. I am going to miss my usual fava bean and pea shoots this year. I suppose I could plant some. Should I? I miss the order of having just food in one place, on the old roof farm. The Nicotiana are for the hummingbirds (well, you never know) and for scent and for tallness. I want tallness. Before tallness, of course, there will be Waiting. I'm not good at that part, which is why so many of my annual plants during the growing year are impulse buys - already rooted and growing and about to bloom. But I have decided to exercise restraint.
At least, that is what I say now.
It will be an interesting year.
Speaking of seeds. This was very nice. Their new catalogue. Thank you, Botanical Interests.