2016-10-31-19-37-18One of my favourite flowers is blooming—Aquilegia, also known as columbine and granny’s bonnet.

I can’t tell you why I like Aquilegia so much. I’m generally not a fan of frilly flowers. Perhaps I like it because, though the flowers look delicate, the plant is tough as nails. This particular specimen is growing in what used to be the driveway—a hopelessly compacted combination of clay and rock, dry as a desert most of the time—and is all but shaded out by the pittosporum behind it. It thrives, and has even seeded itself into other places in the old driveway.

Or maybe I like it because, in the Eastern US where I grew up, the native columbine, Aquilegia canadensis, attracts hummingbirds and hawk moths. Here, the bumble bees visit it, but little else. Apparently, of the 60-70 species of Aquilegia, several have evolved exclusive relationships with particular pollinators.

Whatever the reason I like them, the flowers make me smile every time I pass them.

Apologies, I’m tired…

winepeppers-smWhen the day’s work is done
And exhaustion kicks in
And you want to collapse
You know you can’t win.

The blog must be written!
It doesn’t matter
That your hands are all blistered
And your mind is a tatter.

Just put down some words
Your readers won’t care
If you spell a few wrong
No need to rip out your hair.

Just type a few rhymes
They don’t need to be good.
Explain that you’re tired,
You’ll be understood.

Just whip out that blog post
In record time.
Then take a hot shower,
And a nice glass of wine.


You say Iris, I say Orris

2016-10-28-07-33-39-smWhen we first planted our herb garden, nearly ten years ago, we planted a ‘knot’ of rosemary and lavender. In all the spaces inside the knot, we planted other herbs—a wide range of thymes, oregano, salad burnet, chives, etc. This iris was one of them (though we’ve since rescued it from being smothered in the knot). It is not a herb we ever intended to use—we just thought it was interesting. It is Iris pallida—the iris that is the source of orris root.

Orris root used to be used medicinally, but today its main attraction is its smell. It is used in perfume and potpourri, and in a Moroccan spice mix called Ras el harout.

I love the word orris, because it’s so clearly a case of dialect confusion. Say ‘iris’ with your teeth clenched, and you’ll get ‘orris’.

I can just imagine how it happened…the doctor calls on a patient in a remote village. He examines the man, and asks the family, “What have you done for him so far?”

“We’ve given ‘im a bit of iris root.”

“What? Orris root?”

“Yep, iris.”

“What is orris? I’ve never heard of it.”

“It’s this plant, blue flower, grows down by the creek. I’m sure ye’ve seen it before.”

“Hm.” The doctor scribbles orris root into his notebook, and forever after iris root is known as orris root.


Umami Stacks

umamestack1My husband came home from work early yesterday, which gave us a rare mid-week chance to cook dinner together.

“What I want,” he said, “is some sort of pastry. Little rounds topped with feta cheese and…I don’t know what. What’s out in the garden?”

“Pak choi, asparagus, artichokes…” I began. “Artichokes would be good.”

“Yeah, but a lot of work.”

“Not if you use last year’s canned ones—there are still some left.”

Before we knew it, we had concocted these incredible little pastries. We called them umami stacks for their dose of umami-rich ingredients. They were as beautiful as they were delicious. With mid-week meals like this, it’s no wonder we never bother to go out to eat.

We measured nothing, but here’s an approximation of a recipe…

Make your favourite pie crust—enough for a double-crust pie. Roll thin and cut into 8-10 cm (3-4 inch) rounds. Arrange the rounds on ungreased baking sheets and chill until you’re ready to use (my recipe made 24 rounds).

Toast a few tablespoons of sesame seeds in a dry skillet until browning. Grind them in a mortar and pestle with some coarse salt and black peppercorns. Set aside.

Slice a generous handful of portobello mushrooms, and sauté with a little garlic. Set aside.

Steam 10 asparagus spears. Remove 8-10 cm tips and set aside. Chop the remaining stems.

Mix in a large bowl, mashing slightly:

  • feta cheese (about 125 g)
  • canned artichokes (1 pint jar)
  • spinach (several good handfuls, cooked well)
  • fresh dill weed (a handful, chopped)
  • 1 egg
  • the chopped asparagus

Spread a dollop of the feta mixture on each pastry round. Top with a few slices of mushroom and an asparagus tip. Sprinkle with the sesame seed mixture.

Bake at 190°C (375°F) until the pastry is lightly browned—15-20 minutes.


*We had six pastry rounds left over. I spread them with softened butter, sugar, and cinnamon, rolled them up, and baked them with the umami stacks. Mmmmm!

Forget the President

dsc_0064-2-smI promised myself I wouldn’t post anything political on my blog. And I won’t. But this US election season has me thinking a lot about human beings and how we fail over and over again to behave in ways that lead to greater wellbeing for everyone.

And the rhetoric is so focused on who will lead the country, that I feel like we’ve almost lost sight of the fact that the president is just one person. Is the president going to make everything right in the world? Not a chance, no matter who is in office.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying you shouldn’t vote. Do vote. I sent my absentee ballot in a couple of weeks ago. It is important to choose the best leader possible.

But what I’m saying is that you and I have as much responsibility, and probably more power than the president, to create the world we’d like to live in. Who has the most influence over your days? Your friends, family, co-workers, boss, and teachers. Not the president. Collectively, we have far more power to do good than the leader of any country. We can make the difference between a world of hate and inequality, and one of peace and well-being.

So here is my five-step plan to better humanity…

  1. Be kind and polite. To everyone. Even (and perhaps especially) to people you don’t like. Raise the bar of behaviour—give up your seat on the bus, let that person out of the side street in heavy traffic, give a sympathetic smile to the woman whose baby is screaming in the checkout line. Remember that you have no idea what others are dealing with in their lives—that sullen and inattentive waitress you want to scream at might be going through a divorce, or caring for a dying parent. Make her life easier, not harder. Same goes for all your on-line interactions—just because they can’t see you doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be kind and polite.
  2. Say thank-you. To your spouse. To your children. To the waitress at your favourite café. To the woman who cleans the toilets at work. To the bus driver. Everyone around you has the ability to make your life miserable, thank them for, instead, making it better.
  3. Be thankful. Saying it is one thing, feeling it is another. But the more you say thank-you, the more you will notice things to be thankful for. Embrace those things. Focus on them. That’s not to say you shouldn’t address problems when they arise, but don’t let them dominate you.
  4. Surprise the world with your love. Your friends and family expect you to love them. Strangers don’t. Surprise them. Provide a meal to a homeless person. Make toys to give to foster children. Help a refugee. Compliment a stranger’s children. Smile as you walk down the street. Practise random acts of kindness. Be the person you’d want to have as your best friend. And not just towards your best friend, but towards everyone. Yep. Everyone. You’re going to have to leave your racism, sexism, homophobia, and other –isms and -phobias behind.
  5. Right the wrongs whenever you can. Even little things make a difference. Pick up litter. Refuse to engage in the casual sexist and racist banter you hear every day. Call out people who engage in such banter—politely, of course (see step number 1). Pay attention to where the things you buy come from, and the social and environmental costs of them. Buy fair trade products when you can. If you have money, give some to charity. If you invest, invest in socially and environmentally responsible companies. Don’t be greedy. Give of yourself. Engage with your community, and become active in the issues it faces. Strive to make a positive difference.

So whatever happens in this year’s US presidential election, I’m going to be implementing my 5-step plan to better humanity.

Midnight Flowers

2016-10-26-15-51-31We have several pittosporums around the house, mostly Pittosporum tenuifolium, also known as kohuhu. Kohuhu are nice hedging plants, and form lovely dense shrubs when pruned. They’re a great background plant—like mood music—a lot of nice greenery, but little character.

Until they bloom, that is.

And only at night.

Pittosporum flowers are the kind of blooms that you can walk past a hundred times a day and never see. They’re about the same colour as the branches, and sit nestled among the greenery. They attract no bees or butterflies.

But walk past the same bush in the dark, and you’re practically knocked over by the smell. Heavy and clinging, the smell must attract all the night-flying moths and beetles for miles around.

I’m generally not a fan of smelly flowers, but there’s something marvellously incongruous about pittosporum flowers—so inconspicuous during the day, so in-your-face at night. The smell has become as sign of spring for me, and I always make sure my early-morning chores take me close to one of the bushes at this time of year.


Dolphin Stress Relief

Hectors' dolphin (not today's) in Akaroa Harbour.

Hectors’ dolphin (not today’s) in Akaroa Harbour.

I had a long blog post for today mostly written. I just needed to polish it and find a photo to go with it…

Then we went down to the beach after dinner.

Before we had even crested the dunes, we saw the Hector’s dolphins—a pair of them cavorting just beyond the breakers of an unusually calm sea. By size it was a mother and calf.

What blog post can compete with dolphins?

“You realise this isn’t normal, right?” said my husband to the kids. “Most kids can’t see endangered dolphins on the beach five minutes from home.”

But it is normal for them.

And for that I am so thankful.

We walked the beach, watching the dolphins and picking up colourful stones. The stresses of the day vanished.

I forgot all about that other blog post…

Orb Weavers

2016-10-24-13-39-42Weeding can be tedious, miserable work. Hard on the back, hard on the hands, and downright painful in much of my garden, where nettles and thistles grow exuberantly.

But there are some perks. Weeding brings you close to the vegetation, and gives you a chance to see things you might otherwise miss.

Today I was treated to two native orb weaver spiders—two of my favourite native spiders here.

The first was a bright green, round-bottomed Colaranea viriditas—the green orbweb spider. These little gems are supposedly quite common, but the bright green ‘leaf’ on their backs must do an excellent job of camouflaging them, because I count myself lucky when I see one. Unfortunately, my camera was nowhere close, and this one scurried away before I could catch it.

The second orb weaver I saw today is an expert at camouflage. You would be hard pressed to recognise it as a spider at all most of the time. This spider is in the family Tetragnatha—the big-jawed spiders. Tetragnathids have long thin bodies, and sit with their legs stretched out to the front and back, making the spider look like a small twig (I had to poke the one pictured here so it would stand up and look like a spider for the photo).

Tetragnathids are usually associated with wet areas, so I’m not sure what they’re doing in my dry yard, but they’re certainly common here. Though they’re hard to see, you can’t swing a sweep net in the tall grass without coming up with a few of them.

Both these spiders catch flying insects in webs shaped like the classic Halloween spider web—orb webs. Is it a coincidence that I saw them both today, a week before Halloween? Maybe they’re practicing for their big night.

Or maybe it was just my lucky day.

Saturday Stories: Violet

2016-10-10-15-31-17-hdr-cropsmYes, I know it’s Sunday. I meant to post this yesterday and forgot about it!

The bush crowded in on Violet’s cabin. She liked it that way. After Harold died, she had graciously allowed the tree ferns and bracken to reclaim the vegetable patch and most of the lawn. Violet had never been fond of the cabbage and broccoli Harold grew, anyway. And she couldn’t manage the lawnmower anymore.

Violet kept the house up as best she could. She patched the window screens, changed light bulbs, and swept the porch. The place needed painting, and probably a new roof, but Violet reckoned those would be jobs for the next owner. Her son-in-law cleaned out the gutters once a year, because Violet didn’t trust her shaking limbs on a ladder. He threatened to cut down the trees that overhung the roof and filled the gutters with twigs and leaves, but Violet said no, just as she said no to her daughter’s threats to move her to ‘assisted living.’

“Why would I want to go live with a bunch of old people?” she replied.

“Mother, you’re eighty-seven!”

“And living just fine without assistance, thank-you-very-much!”

“Couldn’t you at least move to a nice flat in town? It would be so much less work for you than this old cottage. And more comfortable, too.”

“There’s no such thing as a nice flat in town. Yes, I could live in a flat and listen to my neighbours through the walls—hear them on the toilet, smell their dinner every night.” She harrumphed. “I don’t want to be subjected to my neighbour’s curries or their bodily functions.”

“But neighbours would look out for you. Out here, you’ve got no one. What if something happened to you? It could be a week before anyone noticed.”

“Well, then I’d die in a pleasant place. I won’t move to town, to be watched over by the neighbours.”

Violet knew she depended on her daughter’s help—the weekly visit to do her cleaning and bring her groceries—but she was thankful when it was over.

Her daughter always fussed over Violet—she must be too cold, the house was too damp, the lights too dim. When she left, Violet turned the lights off, let the fire go out, and opened the windows. She preferred the natural light, the fresh air. She was rarely cold, and knew her way around the house, even in the dark.

This evening, in the wake of one of her daughter’s visits, Violet sat in a battered wooden chair on the porch. Harold had painted it white years ago, but most of the paint was long gone. The wide arms were black from years of Harold’s garden-soiled hands. Tonight, Violet set her cup of tea on the right arm, her hand wrapped around the mug.

She sat and listened, as she did every evening. Her eyesight was going, but her hearing was still as sharp as ever.

As the light faded, a bellbird called—its clear, repeated call falling into a rhythm Violet knew well. She tapped a foot as though to her favourite tune.

A tui clanked from behind the house.

He’s a little late tonight, she thought. I wonder if he’s got himself a girlfriend.

She sipped her tea and closed her eyes, waiting for her next visitor. In a flurry of wing beats, a kereru landed in the rata tree hanging over the porch.

Welcome home, my friend, thought Violet to the plump bird.

A fine mist began to fall, hissing quietly on the roof.

The kereru ruffled its feathers and tucked its head under a wing.

The tui fell silent.

The bellbird sang its last note.

Violet’s foot stopped tapping and she let out a sigh.

The rain hissed as her tea cooled, sitting on the arm of the chair. The clouds lowered, wrapping the tops of the trees in a grey blanket.

Violet’s hand, resting lightly against her mug, cooled along with the tea.

Darkness fell.

Somewhere deep in the bush, a kiwi called, its rising trill a question needing no answer.

Violet remained on the porch, eyes closed, a smile lingering on her face.

Crowded House

2016-10-21-18-50-54-smLast night the temperature dipped to -1°C. Fortunately, it had been forecast, so I pulled all the tender plants out of the greenhouse and into the heated office for the night.

It was a truly glorious sight—the seed shelves full of just-sprouting cucurbits and corn, and the floor carpeted in tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and basil plants.

I look forward to getting all those tender plants back out to the greenhouse—I can’t even walk through the office, let alone work in there at the moment—but it was fun to have all the plants together for a photo shoot.