Asparagus in Japan’s Snow Country

Asparagus is not the first vegetable that comes to mind when people think of Japan. Yet whenever I see or eat asparagus, I cannot help but think of that year that I lived on a surfeit – and oh, such a surfeit it was – of fresh asparagus. And it was all thanks to Okuyama-san.

Okuyama-san had an asparagus patch of his own, in a field just on the outskirts of town. Every morning and late afternoon, just before and after work at his printing shop, he trudged there with old Pochi (then barely able to see, his eyes clouded with cataracts). Of all the plants he grew there — a medley of stalwarts like giant radish (daikon) and Chinese cabbage (hakusai) and chrysanthemums — his favourite, and obviously his pride and joy too, was the asparagus. And he lavished it with attention and generous feeding with well-composted leaf mould and compost all mounded up into a soft and fluffy brown futon. And the asparagus in turn repaid his solicitous care with the fattest and most succulent spears.

The year we lived there he was gifted with another patch nearby – a larger one – that had belonged to the old woman whose field abutted his. She could no longer give it the attention it needed, she’d said, and so passed it on to him where she knew it would be in the best of hands. And with so much to spare, Okuyama-san had a bundle for me every few days, enclosed in a large leaf of giant fuki to keep them moist, left at my doorstep to greet me first thing in the morning.

When we had a group of science fiction translator friends come to stay with us one weekend in spring, a feast of Okuyama-san’s asparagus awaited them. Aspara tempura nante, shinjirarenai! (‘Asparagus tempura! Unbelievable!’) was their delighted response. There was so much asparagus, I’d made some into salad as well, with a dressing of miso (made by our neighbours across the road), walnuts, and mirin – from a local recipe (kurumi miso-ae) shared by another neighbour.

With the next batch that I hope to glean from my wild asparagus patch, I know exactly what I’m going to make with them. And if I find some sake (I may need to go to Valencia for this), it will be a fitting meal with which to remember Okuyama-san and our days in Yuzawa, Akita — in the heart of Japan’s snow country —  by.

As I write this, fog has come in from the sea and completely covered the mountain ahead, which was, just minutes ago, nice and clear.

I leave you with a photo of lovely wild orchids growing in a nearby olive grove. March came in like a lamb, behaved like a lion some days ago, and although it’s not roaring at the moment, it’s still far from its mild manner at the start. I’m not complaining — the plants that I’ve sown need the additional coolth to mature. Happy spring everyone!

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Foraged lunch

While walking around the back garden looking for spring wildflower surprises at midday, I spied several spindly stalks swaying in the light breeze. As I got closer, they turned out to be wild asparagus (Asparagus acutifolius; in Valenciano, esparreguera)! It took me back to the late 70s, to the first book that inspired me into foraging and gathering and eating wild foods – Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus.

Well, the beauty of it is that there was no need to stalk these at all. They were just there underneath the pines, the ground having been cleared of the thicket of viciously spined smilax vines that had made that side of the garden a forbidding jungle about a year ago when we moved in. (Though ruthlessly slashed a month back to clear the ground, the reddish new smilax shoots are beginning to push through. Known here as zarzaparilla, they are apparently edible. Hmm… do I dare try them as well? We shall see.)

I was enthralled, walking from clump to clump of waving asparagus, breaking off only the tender top tips, and in no time at all I had a good handful. Just the ticket for lunch – freshly picked wild asparagus! They were brilliant with pasta and some home-made pesto (also from ‘foraged’ basil – actually plants that were past their prime in a nursery that had closed down last autumn) made with artisanal green olive oil from Catalonia. A generous amount of chopped garlic was stirred in at the last minute. And to my surprise, the asparagus tasted much sweeter than store-bought ones. Bliss! Casa Wild asparagus pasta_5605

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Early spring risers

With the weather warming up, early morning walks around the garden are rewarded by the sight of the earliest of flowers – wild and cultivated.

The earliest to awake from its winter sleep is shrubby germander or Teucrium fruticans. I love its silvery leaves and its blue-mauve flowers. We planted several bushes in the autumn, and they have survived the worst that winter threw at them – over 100 kph chill winds, torrential rain, snow, and hail.

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Out of the corner of my eye I caught a dark speck of blue in the back garden, and it turned out to be the first grape hyacinth or Muscari. This tiny flower, the whole of it no bigger than my thumb nail, is endemic to this part of Valencia.

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Here is one still in bud.

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Another miniature flower is this adorable unknown wild resident.

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Yet another unidentified mini bouquet.

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And yet another. These flowers are really tiny.

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And although most of the garden is still asleep and the height of spring bloom is still a few weeks away, nevertheless there is much to admire in the colour of awakening leaves. Fresh leaves nudged into growth with the gradually warming sun are showing signs of recovery from having been battered by hail. Here are fuzzy lavender leaves also recovering from being mauled by scaffolding and falling rubble while the veranda was under construction.

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Creeping rosemary suffered a similar fate to the lavender, having been side by side on the herb bed. Here it is on the way to full recovery.

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Here are spikey thistles with their amazing structure.

 

This normally bluish-green succulent was unused to being buried under snow and hail. Flushed red from the warming antioxidants it summoned to protect it from the cold, it is still pockmarked from hail, but looks like it will recover. There seems to be a new shoot growing on the right.

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That’s the first of the early risers in my garden. More to come soon!

Spring song

 

For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;

The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.

— Song of Solomon 2:11-12, King James Version

The flowers in Solomon’s song most likely refer to almond, as they are the earliest trees to blossom in the region of the Mediterranean. And when the almond blossom is out, you know that spring is just around the corner. There may still be the occasional days of chilling winds and even a hail storm, as we had unexpectedly for the third time this year a few days ago, or, like last year, snow at the very end of February. But these unseasonal phenomena are rather like winter’s half-hearted attempts to claw itself back in. But even it too is aware that it’s time to move on, and let spring have centre stage and reap its fair share of glory.

And after such an unprecedented winter, according to locals unused to extended weeks of rain and hail and thunderstorms and snow, this year’s spring blossoming is truly glorious. All along the lowland roads leading to the coast, and scattered hither and yon amongst the dark green of orange orchards and the silver grey of olive groves, beam gigantic bouquets of white and pale pink and brilliant pink. So cheering!

Up here in the mountains, spring blossom is always delayed by a couple of weeks at least. This year it’s obviously been a colder winter than last. I took this photo on the road descending to the Vall de Gallinera on the 4th of February last year.

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On the 5th of February this year, on the very same spot, this was the state of bloom.

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But just a few meters below, in a more sheltered spot, was this marvellous sight.

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The backdrop of this gloriously blooming almond — the Vall de Gallinera — is stunning.

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What other unmistakable signs of imminent spring have there been? I’ve been hearing the enchanting song of the Mediterranean golden oriole off and on over the past week. I haven’t got a photo as it’s extremely elusive. We were fortunate enough last year to catch a brief glimpse of it perched on one of the pines.

Other birds I’ve never seen in the garden before have been flying in in small flocks. They shelter in the belt of tall pines at the back of the garden and swoop down several times a day to peck intently at the grass and pebble path. For what? Surely not seeds — too early. Perhaps larvae of grass mites? (That would be a great help indeed. I’ve momentarily forgotten that with the hot weather come insects of all kinds — mites and mosquitoes, as well as the dreaded mosca negra.)

These could be passerine birds, here for a brief stopover to fatten up, before flying further northwards. One flock look remarkably like sparrows — same size, but with rust-coloured chests and greyish brown caps. Another flock has red-barred cheeks with bright yellow streaks leading to their tails. Beautiful! Those stayed only for a couple of days. The sparrow-like flock seems to love it here, especially since M has set up a feeder for them with mixed bird seed.

The seed mix was supplied by our favourite provisions shop in Gandia — a rarity nowadays. It looks like a grain- and spice merchant’s shop from previous centuries, with open sacks of beans and maize and all manner of nuts and grains in a high-ceilinged locale just off the Mercat del Prado. They had some prepared mixes for parrots and canaries, but when we said we were feeding wild birds,  the proprietor took a scoopful of lentils, another of hulled cereal, and another of cracked assorted grains, and mixed them all up. Perfect.

I haven’t seen nor heard a turtle dove yet — the ‘turtle’ in Solomon’s song. The only doves around are white ones kept by our nearest neighbour. And as for the rain being over and gone, the weather forecast for the weekend is rain; for which I and my garden are glad. I hope the rain won’t be over and gone yet for another month or so more.

Our hamlet is white

Yesterday’s grey skies and rain gave way to snow that sprinkled the northern flanks of the mountains framing our hamlet on three sides. I’d thought that if the low temperatures held overnight, the garden would perhaps get a sprinkling of snow. Well… it wasn’t just a sprinkling but 5 centimeters of snow had fallen and was still falling when I got up this morning. We had breakfast in the veranda looking out over our Mediterranean garden transformed into a polar landscape. The sun is still trying to make up its mind whether to come out.

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There is something rather incongruous about a palm tree’s fronds weighed down with snow. There is something incongruous, to me anyhow, about a palm tree among olives and pines, to begin with. Though there is an endemic palm quite common here — Chamaerops humilis — of which there are three long established in the garden and many more growing wild outside. Because it is winter-hardy, it is often used in English gardens to lend an exotic touch. It has fruits which turn dark red when ripe, and one of the workmen told me that as a child he and his friends used to snack on them on mountain hikes. There wasn’t much to taste of it: it was rather astringent with very little sweetness or any flesh at all. “No hay mucho carne,” he said, but he obviously enjoyed this nostalgic taste of childhood and went on to eat a few more. But I digress as usual.

Lady Brown and Hunter refuse to go out on their own. I wonder what they make of all this cold white stuff. Apparently it’s been years since they’ve had snow here, though it must’ve been a frequent occurrence in times long past, regular enough for people to establish a nevera — an underground storage chamber for packed snow to serve as ice over the summer months. No one relies on this nowadays of course with modern refrigeration. Hunter definitely and Lady B most likely has not experienced snow at all. M had to walk with them out to the back garden so they could do their business. Only Hunter was brave enough to come with me later to walk around the garden. He’s still feeling a little tender, since his snip yesterday. We’re hoping that this will deter his frequent escapades whenever there’s a female in heat in the neighbourhood. It remains to be seen whether this will calm his hyperactivity as well. Lady B was extremely upset when M and Hunter set off to the vet’s early yesterday morning, leaving her behind with me. She refused to look at her breakfast bowl, and did not touch her food at all, even when Hunter and M had come back. All day long she kept giving me sad, baleful looks.

One of our garden’s resident red squirrels came down from his perch up in the pines, going down gingerly along the trunk trying to avoid the patches of snow on it. He was obviously not pleased and he scolded the largest patch, shaking his tail at it furiously. But of course despite the scolding it refused to budge, so he was forced to circle around the trunk to find drier, warmer footing. Once down, he started merrily skipping along his usual path along the stone terraces but turned directly back after the first shockingly cold steps and ran up into the nearest snowless surface — one of the spiny yuccas. Ouch! From there he bounded off onto the tops of the reed fence. Poor Paleface. He’s got a white patch that runs from his head down to his belly, hence his name. I don’t know whether he made it to his usual breakfast nook somewhere in the pine forest behind the house, as I had to put another log on the fire.

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I give thanks again for the veranda, glassed in just in time. In it, with the fire blazing, we feel as if we are outside yet warm and protected from chill winds. Lady B spends most of her days here as well, lying in the sun on her favourite sofa. The sun appears in fits and starts as I write, still not quite sure this is a day for it to be out.  For me it’s a day for staying in and writing while looking out onto the snowy landscape, enjoying views of red-breasted robins and the occasional female blackbird foraging on snowless ground. And to think just a few days ago, we enjoyed daytime temperatures of 20ºC and took the dogs to the lovely Sant Antoni beach in Cullera, a short drive away. What a contrast, eh? Keep warm, my friends.

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After the storm

We took the dogs to Gandia beach two days after the floods. The sea was still in storm mode — all frothy, turbulent waves whipped by the wind. You could not tell where sea ended and sky began. A breathtakingly lovely sea- and sandscape, rough and raw and delicate at the same time, with Montgo limned in the distance as on the finest blue-and-white hand-painted ceramic. And no one else but us to enjoy this rarity.

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A first attempt at identifying a mushroom

The other day I chanced upon a photo online of a mushroom called Lactarius indigo which, despite its specific ‘indigo,’ is pale blue. Blue happens to be one of my favourite colours (the other being green), and of course this fungus of what seemed an unlikely colour totally awed me. I would be over the moon to come across one such.

Incredibly just a couple of days later, I came upon some equally improbably coloured mushrooms. Not blue, but lilac! This was on the 10th of December, the second day of sun after two weeks of daily rain.

Clitocybe:Lepista nuda gills daisy vg_5140.JPGThey grew in a cluster not far from the canopy of a tall pine. To my great delight, I found more in groups of twos and threes some distance around the olive trees. And today again I found another cluster where there had been no other fungi. These were not all uniformly pale violet — some were dark purple and others veered towards beige or grey or brown with a mauve-ish cast.

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Now I know of only one kind of purple mushroom – wood blewits (pronounced blue’ettes). In Castillian and French, they are known as ‘blue feet’, though far from blue: pie azul, pied bleu. In Catalan/Valenciano they go by a number of names — pentinella or pimpinella morada, escarlat morat, peu violeta, lileta, blaveta. In Basque, they are oin urdin, in German, violetter Rötelritterling. Their binomial name is Lepista nuda or Clitocybe nuda. Wood blewits are “a highly esteemed edible mushroom … also popular when pickled” (Neuner 1978). Spanish fungi webpages caution that the blewit is only edible when cooked; uncooked it is venenosa (‘toxic’). And even when cooked, it may cause a laxative effect in some people. The blewit is usually found from autumn to winter in forests and open spaces.

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As I have mentioned before, I would not risk eating any fungus that I find in the garden or elsewhere until I have gained identification skills, and perhaps not even then. Michael Kuo (of mushroomexpert.com) says it takes over two years to learn how to properly identify mushrooms, and even he rarely eats mushrooms that he collects. (Nevertheless, I did feel that I was wasting nature’s bounty. Just to give you an idea of how plentiful the blewits in the garden were, had I gathered them I would’ve had enough for appetizers for three.)

So how to go about confirming these are blewits? I checked the descriptions and photographs in several hardcopy and online references (see list below). From the colour and shape of the cap, the crowded gills, and the way the gills met the stem, it appeared that I may have blewits. However, further searching revealed that blewits are not the only violet-coloured fungi. Several Cortinarius species are too — C. amoenolens, C. collinitis, C. croceo-caeruleus, C. evernius, C. purpurascens, C. sodagnitus, C. traganus. Unlike blewits though, the edibility of these is unknown. There is one rare Cortinarius species that is violet and edible, C. violacea, and smells a bit like cedar wood, per Roger Phillips.

blewits-cap-beige-unopened-one-crop

Additionally confounding, some Hygrocybe and Laccaria species also have purple caps. Yet another species, Tilopilus rubrobrunneus, can have a purple to purplish-brown cap. However this last is a Bolete, which means it has pores beneath its cap instead of gills like the blewit, so it can be eliminated from this exercise.

Colour is insufficient as an identifier, clearly. Expert mycologists always recommend taking a spore print. Blewit spores are said to be pink or pink- buff. The first spore print I took was more like beige: when scraped together, the pile of spores appeared like loose face powder. (Here’s something a make-up user can readily grasp.)

Another distinguishing characteristic of wood blewits is scent. Some male mycologists say they smell fragrant. They don’t say which fragrance though. Roger Phillips says they have a distinct or odd smell without further explanation. David Arora, the world-renowned mycologist and author of Mushrooms Demystified, says they smell of frozen orange juice. Son No. 2, here for a visit, has an extra keen sense of smell and he affirmed they smelled flowery. Youtube videos in Spanish also claim blewits’ scent as ‘afrutado’ (fruity). Well, these lilac fungi smelled nothing like fragrant flowers or juice or fruit. To me they smelled like very fresh champignons.

This brief first exercise has me more than convinced that identifying mushrooms is a complicated business indeed, even one with the fairly distinct cap, gills, and stalk colour of lilac or pale violet. And even though spore colour is supposedly sufficient for distinguishing certain fungi, in some cases, as above, it may not be enough. A really good microscope would definitively identify blewits by the shape of their spores. But I don’t have one now, having got rid of ours in an excess of downsizing zeal just before moving to Spain.

Conclusion? Perhaps the lavender-coloured fungi in my garden are Lepista nuda, based largely on images here.  It has helped enormously to view as many photographs of blewits as possible, because the range of their forms and colours is so vast. This UK wild food site mentions that Lepista nuda spores can be off-white. In that case then, these fungi could very well be wood blewits. The second spore print I took of another fresh blewit suspect appeared pinky buff, thus confirming that they are blewits. But I’m still not considering eating them. Admiring their wonderful colour is more than enough for me.

————-

Kuo, M. Clitocybe nudahttp://www.mushroomexpert.com/clitocybe_nuda.html

Kuo, M. Waxy caps: The Hygrophoraceae family, in part.  http://www.mushroomexpert.com/hygrophoraceae.html

Kuo, M. The genus Tylopilus. http://www.mushroomexpert.com/tylopilus.html

Lepista nuda. http://www.rogersmushrooms.com/gallery/DisplayBlock~bid~6319.asp

Neuner, Andreas. 1977. (English translation by Fred Bradley, 1978). British and European Mushrooms and Fungi. London: Chatto & Windus.

Phillips, Roger. 1981. Mushrooms and Other Fungi of Great Britain and Europe: The Most Comprehensively Illustrated Book on the Subject This Century. Macmillan: London.

http://www.mykoweb.com/CAF/species/Clitocybe_nuda.html

http://www.rogersmushrooms.com

 http://www.spaincenter.org/tvi/negocios-empresas/alimentos/setas/item/1815-lepista-nuda-pie-azul-setas-fotos

After the rain, flushes of fungi

When I lived in Bonn, the highlight of a walk into the Kottenforst — the extensive forest that began just a few steps from the house— was finding fungi. Now that I live in a forest — or more accurately — one of a number of farms carved out of mixed forests of holm oak, carob, and pine, I am finding all manner of fungi right in my backyard, especially after rain. Since mid-September, we’ve had quite a lot of rain. And for the past two weeks, the amount of rain that has fallen on the southern part of Valencia province has been setting a new record — 170 liters per square meter in 24 hours!

These, which I believe (but am not entirely sure) are Marasmius oreades, came up with the very first rains over two months ago. They’re quite small and form groups roughly in an arc –not a complete ring– though in time I expect they will, into what is known fancifully as a fairy ring. They appeared just beyond the canopy of some pines.

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These puffballs were among the earliest fungi to appear after the first rains. They were in a more open situation away from the trees, among the wild thyme in a drier part of the garden.

These I believe are Suillus granulatus (though not with 100% conviction). A local nature website mentions this as a common Suillus species in this part of Spain. What’s unusual about these two is that they sprung from a leaf- and soil-filled cavity in a rock. I had assumed that these mycorrhizal fungi would need to be in contact with the roots of their host trees. There are pine trees in the vicinity, but I doubt that their roots could have penetrated the rock from below.

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The pores that distinguish this type of fungus (Boletes) from the gilled fungi, such as the familiar champignon.

The red-capped fungus below appeared with the most recent extended rains. I’m speculating this colourful mushroom to be either a Lactarius or a Russula  — both genera are habitually found under pines. If anyone can offer a more accurate identification, I’d be really grateful.

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The oddest fungi to appear in my garden have got to be the stinkhorns. And they are indeed aptly named as your nose alerts you to their presence from far off. The stench of carrion is supposed to attract flies to disseminate their spores. Those below are Phallus impudicus. I haven’t seen any flies on the greenish-black slime though — perhaps even the flies are repelled. There’s a massive group of them under pine, lentisk, and carob trees.

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The unusual basket-like fungus below is known as Witches Vomit, Guitra de Bruixa, in Catalan/Valenciano. I find it attractive, but it is classified among the stinkhorns because of its stench meant to attract spore-dispensing flies. There were two that appeared near the olive trees in the summer, so it was a surprise to see one again this autumn, just a few meters from where the previous ones had been.

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Clathrus ruber, the basket or lattice stinkhorn, just emerged from its sac.

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The brownish black spots are not flies — perhaps a slimey fly attractant.

I’ve relied on Roger Phillip’s lavishly illustrated Mushrooms and Other Fungi of Great Britain and Europe (Macmillan, London:1981) for help with identification. The internet has greatly expanded amateur mycologist’s resources, and none more helpful than Michael Kuo’s Mushroom Expert, although his focus is on American fungi. And Roger Phillips now has his own website, Roger’s Mushrooms, as well. As a beginning fungus enthusiast, I would be grateful for any corrections to those I’ve identified above.

Now that I’ve had half a year of observing what has been coming up in my garden, what I find truly fascinating, over and above these marvelous fungi in themselves, is the symbiosis among the trees, the terrestrial orchids, and the other wild flowers in my garden. Without the delicate balancing act of their interaction, such a wondrous biodiversity that I experience daily would not exist.

Things to be grateful for

It’s the eve of American Thanksgiving Day, and rain has been falling steadily since last night — the first item on my thank-you list.

It isn’t simply the amount of rain but when it falls that I am grateful for. This is the appropriate season for rain in the Mediterranean. Locals tell me that the rains are late, that they should have started two months ago. Owners of citrus groves who needed rain in August reportedly have had to pay dearly for irrigation. One plumber complained that the first rainfall of the season, a few weeks ago, was much too much. Ideally, he said, the rain should fall gently and with restraint, so that the soil has time to absorb it, rather than the way it has done — in torrents, most of it running off and carrying a lot of topsoil with it. As a newbie farmer though, I am simply grateful for any rain to fall at this time — for the established trees — the olives, cherry, loquat, citrus, arbutus, and pines — as well as the new plantings of feijoa, cypresses, arborvitae, and understorey plants.

There are daily prayers in Judaism, a faith that arose in just such a Mediterranean climate as this, that praise God for causing the wind to blow and rain to fall, and request rain and dew as blessings on the earth (see also Leviticus 26).

“You are our God

Who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall.

For blessing and not for curse. Amen.

For life and not for death. Amen.

For plenty and not for lack. Amen.”

Today I give thanks for the blessings and grace of rain on my little farm.

I also give thanks for the blessings of health for me and all my family and friends; of physical, emotional, and spiritual sustenance; of companionship, actual and virtual, of friends and family, including especially our newly adopted pets Lady Brown and Hunter, whose affectionate natures are a constant joy.

It is said that the first six months in a new place, especially in a new country, are the most trying. This month marks our first half year here in this house, and I am grateful for the kindness and graciousness of new friends and acquaintances whose generous advice and warm welcome into the community have eased our settling in to our new home.

Thanks are due as well to the tradespeople in and around Villalonga who have readily assisted us in so many diverse ways — carpenters, plumbers, solar/wind energy technicians, builders, gardeners, shopkeepers. And invariably they do so with professionalism and good cheer, some whistling and singing softly as they go about their work. This is in sharp contrast to the surliness and incivility of workmen in other countries.

In particular I am impressed with Valencians’ punctiliousness regarding time. Without fail, whenever a tradesman has set a time to be here, he is here at that time, or even before. This hardly happened in my decades of living in countries that supposedly value punctuality highly. (In Bonn, incredible as it may seem, the repairmen rarely gave a specific time to come – it was always between 9 am and 5 pm.)

Last but not least, in England the equivalent of Thanksgiving is the Harvest Festival, usually celebrated in church in my experience, when offerings of food are collected and later distributed to the needy in the parish. [No doubt the custom of Thanksgiving arose from the English (immigrant) pilgrims’ first harvest that ensured their survival over their first winter, made possible through the kindness and generosity of their native American neighbours. Sadly this historical fact has been seemingly forgotten or ignored in contemporary practice and politics.]

I am particularly pleased with our unexpected first harvest from our newly planted feijoa trees. Several had had flowers and incipient fruits when we bought them, still in pots. I had not expected that the fruits would survive transplanting. But they did, and we gathered over twenty from just four trees. Their flavour is superb. We have also harvested some olives from a few trees — these are now curing in several pickling jars. As well, we’ve been blessed with fruits from our chilli and tomato plants. For the wonderful wildflowers — the orchids, lilies, daisies, and other unknown plants whose leaves are now greening what used to be parched brown earth  — and fungi that have sprung up all around since the beginning of autumn and given such joy, I am also thankful.

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So yes indeed, on this day — which marks the beginning of the final 66 days to complete a year of writing my grace journal, there are uncountable blessings in living here, in a simple manner, at this time and enjoying this bountiful season in a peaceful and congenial mountain hamlet. For all these, I am deeply grateful.

Saffron crocus vs. meadow saffron

The crocuses in my garden, which have provided so much delight over the past weeks, are now on the wane, rather eclipsed by the simultaneous blooming of countless daisies. I’ve just gotten around to confirming, rather to my disappointment, that they’re not saffron crocuses at all. What I’ve got are autumn crocuses (Colchicum autumnale) rather than Crocus sativus, the saffron crocus. The autumn crocus turns out, rather confusingly, not to be a crocus at all. It is also better known in English as meadow saffron, despite the fact that it is unrelated to saffron. (This linguistic confusion is another justification for the use of Linnaeus’s Latin binomial system.) Among its other names are: Bulbus agrestis, ‘wild bulb’ and Mort au chien, lit. ‘death to dog’ (Gerard’s Herball, 1636); naked ladies (Mrs. M. Grieve’s A Modern Herbal, 1931); and upstart (John Lust, The Herb Book, 1974).

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Autumn crocus or meadow saffron, Colchicum autumnale, in my garden.

How does one distinguish which is which? First of all the saffron crocus has 3 very long stigmata (the female filaments) of an unmistakable bright red-orange. (The meadow saffron or colchicum does not have these.) The long red filaments are what are gathered and dried to produce the world’s most expensive spice. One ounce of high grade Persian (Iranian) saffron sells at US$125. The price of an ounce tin of La Mancha, Spain superior grade quality saffron is double: US$252. How many filaments to an ounce? About 16,000, or roughly the stigmata from 5,334 saffron bulbs. Sadly I realize I don’t have the beginnings of an upscale spice smallholding, though I did see saffron bulbs on sale at Leroy Merlin in Gandia two weeks ago. The bulbs are also on sale (4 bulbs at €2.60, reduced from €3.95) at the online distributor planetahuerto.es.

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Saffron crocus with 3 long red-orange stigmata. Photo: Gernot Katzer.

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Three red-orange filaments (stigmata) absent = autumn crocus or meadow saffron (Colchicum autumnale).

Gerard’s Herball noted that “medow saffron grow[s] in England in great aboundance in fat and fertile medowes, … about Bathe, as also in the medows neere to … Shepton Mallet, in the medowes about Bristoll … and likewise in great plenty two miles from Northampton.” (I mention these place names as I have friends living there who may appreciate knowing that once upon a time meadow saffron grew abundantly nearby.) Meadow saffron not only flourishes in moist meadows in England, but also throughout Europe, chiefly on limestone (the bedrock of my garden, which explains the wild population I’ve got here).

Mistaking the meadow saffron or colchicum for the edible saffron crocus is an error one makes just once. In other words it is fatal. The colchicum bulb and seeds are the source of a toxic alkaloid called colchicine. In medically prescribed controlled doses for a specific short period (usually no more than a few days), it is administered to reduce the excruciating pain of a gout flare. It does not actually do anything to lower the body’s uric acid levels that lead to the pain of a gout attack. It is not a cure for gout: what it does is relieve the pain to a tolerable level, sometimes by the end of the first day to after a few days. It is so toxic that Nicholas Culpeper, author of the Complete Herbal, first published in 1653, said:

Colchici. Of Meadow Saffron. The roots are held to be hurtful to the stomach, therefore I let them alone.”

Culpeper was probably echoing Gerard’s advice of a few decades earlier: “…those which have eaten of the common Medow Saffron must drinke the milke of a cow, or else death presently ensueth. The roots of all the sorts of Mede Saffrons are very hurtful to the stomacke, and being eaten they kill by choaking as Mushromes do, according unto Dioscorides; whereupon some have called it Colchicum strangulatorium.”

 John Lust cautions: “The whole plant is poisonous, and small amounts of the bulb or seeds can cause death. Not for home use under any circumstances” [emphasis mine].

The leaves of autumn crocus or meadow saffron resemble those of wild garlic or ramsons (Allium ursinum, known in German as Bärlauch). They appear in spring (without the helpful distinguishing feature of the flowers, which arise from the ground leafless in autumn) and have also been reported to cause deaths.

The wide berth that Lady Brown and Hunter have given the autumn crocuses in the garden is comforting. Do they by some chance sense that it is something they must not ingest, let alone touch or be near to? I have observed both of them nipping the tops of young fresh grass elsewhere in the garden, quite far from the autumn crocuses, though they do sniff the grass most thoroughly before doing so. If they go on doing this, there may be no need to mow the grass at all. 🙂 Perhaps like cats that feel out of sorts, they may need greens every so often as aids to digestion.

I did notice that Hunter was rather curious about the autumn crocuses at first, giving them a prolonged observation. Perhaps he was trying to see what it was about these pale purple flowers that his female human adopter found sufficiently fascinating to gaze at and photograph from different angles.

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