Red spider lilies bloom in the diminishing days with the first puff winter, and beckon from a distant shore.
A native of China, the red spider lily (Lycoris radiata), is poisonous to most animals. Every part of the plant can induce vomiting, paralysis, even death. They’re planted in rice fields to deter rodents. When they spread to Japan, where the dead were buried without coffins, the lilies were planted to prevent vermin from disturbing the graves. In time, the brilliant red flower became known as the corpse flower, the ghost flower, and—most poignantly—the lost child flower. Buddhism also came to Japan from China, and the Lotus Sutra became a fundamental text for many Japanese schools. In the sutra, heavenly flowers descend from the realms of the gods, falling on the Buddha and his audience. Many devotees associate this flower – called Manjushage – with red spider lilies.
The lily blooms around the autumn equinox, Higanbana, the day the dead return to the world, and higanbana is a popular Japanese name for the flower. The flowers are said to bloom on O-higan “the other shore,” of the Sanzu-no-Kawa, a Styx-like river separates the lands of the living from the realms of the dead. There the bright red blossoms—like Charon—guide souls to their next births.
My grandmother Emma would sit me on a kitchen stool and tell me stories while she cooked. I can hear her voice, low and level, moving with her work, smell the cornbread in the oven, and see the softly plopping pot of beans on the back of the stove. She told me how she jumped rope with her sisters, about the tomatoes her grandfather grew, and she’d rap her spoon on the side of the sink to make a sound like sudden rains on a tin roof: “Rat-a-tat at first,” she’d say, “Then so loud you had to shout to talk.”
She told me about roses so blue they made the sky look like it had no color at all.
“Gramaw,” I’d say in my most grown-up way, “roses are red! Or white. Miz Stevens has some white ones. And I saw some yellow ones in the store. But roses aren’t blue!”
Emma would smile and tend to the stove. “Oh, you are such a smart girl!” she’d say. “But you’re not as smart as your old granny. Some roses are blue, but you ain’t gonna to see ‘em in Loris Stevens’ yard, and you ain’t gonna see ‘em in the store. The only place blue roses grow is Africa, on the Mountains of the Moon.”
She told me that ocean air keeps the mountains cloaked from the sun, but at night, when the north wind comes down from desert sands, the skies clear, the moon shines on the grey-green slopes, and roses with blossoms as blue as a gas flame climb toward the pale stars.
When Emma died my heart broke into a million pieces, but in remembering, my heart becomes whole. If I find blue roses in a catalog, I smile because I know blue roses only grow in Africa, on the misty slopes of the Mountains of the Moon.
While working in a Florida restaurant, I kept having trouble ordering a yellow-meated watermelon from my produce guy. He said he could never find one, even though I’d seen them in local markets. Finally it came out that with my heavy hill country Mississippi accent he thought I was ordering a melon from some mythical locale in California: “Jala Meadad”. He even wrote it down that way on his order forms. While yellow-meated watermelons aren’t widely known, early texts written by European botanists have been uncovered depicting images and descriptions of watermelons of various shapes and sizes as well as varying flesh colors of red, white, yellow and orange. In fact, the original watermelon that grew wild in South Africa was most likely a yellow or white flesh variety, but lacked the high sugar levels of today’s watermelons.
Here in the Deep South the yellow-meat season is very short; you’ll rarely find them marketed before July or after August, and you’ll almost never find them sold in supermarkets, usually only at roadside produce stands. Yellow watermelons can vary greatly in size, shape and color; the most common variety here in Mississippi has broad dark green stripes and narrow light green ones, though over in Clay County, Alabama, where they have the Clay County Yellow Meated Watermelon Festival, the eponymous variety is an almost uniform light green. The flesh can range from pale yellow to deep gold and may contain large brownish black seeds or be completely seedless. While their succulent and crisp texture is comparable to red watermelons, their flavor is usually much sweeter offering notes of honey and apricot.
The deli at our local grocery serves such a wonderful vegetable soup that many days I’ll get two large servings—at 12 oz. each, a little less than a quart—and make lunch of those with saltines and tea. Such was my intent yesterday when I strolled in, found the soup bin empty and was told that the vegetable soup was discontinued for the summer, since “nobody eats soup when the weather is hot.”
Well, you know what? Yes, they do, and not just those prissy vichyssoises splashed across the pages of food magazines in June. We’ve enjoyed fresh vegetable soups for centuries here, and rightly so, since the American South produces the finest vegetables on the face of the planet. (There; I’ve said it, the gauntlet is flung. The ball’s in your court.)
Here’s my recipe, which starts with two quarts diced canned tomatoes and juice. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a talented, industrious gardener who cans, and you will have in your larder their red gold. If not, Contadina will suffice. Sauté one large diced white onion with three or four diced ribs of celery and two cloves minced garlic in just enough vegetable oil to coat. To this add two cups water or two cups broth, vegetable broth preferably, but a weak chicken will do—in place of veal, you understand—pour this into your lowly-shimmering, beautiful tomatoes along with a cup or so of frozen diced okra, thawed and drained then find something else industrious or enlightening to do for a half-hour or until the onions and okra have surrendered to the mélange.
This is your base for the dozens of beautiful vegetable soups you will make throughout the growing season with fresh vegetables. Starchy-ish fresh peas and beans, even green beans, should be parboiled until tender before adding, and I wouldn’t add fresh corn at all, but that makes me an exception. Always add water because evaporation happens, and water is the preferred replacement. I like to add a little V-8, and I always seem to have a half an onion in the fridge I can use. Fresh squash can be diced and added raw, as it tends to meld as does—it should go without saying—fresh okra. As to herbs, I’m frugal; a pinch of thyme and a smidgen of oregano do just fine. Add salt with care and heat seasoning at the table. And yes, you can serve this warm or chilled.
Shuck, scrub, and dry ears of fresh sweet corn, trim ends, brush with corn oil and grill or sear in a skillet. (Street stands use a salamander.) Skewer and set aside to cool. Make a paste with ½ cup mayonnaise and ½ cup hard grated cheese; if you don’t have cojita, Parmesan is fine, but a 50/50 mix of Parm and feta is better. Add a tablespoon of chili powder, add another and maybe a little salt. Spread the paste on the corn, and chill before serving.
“America’s grandest contribution to the pasta repertoire,” pasta primavera was invented in New York at Le Cirque in 1977. According to the ineffable Craig Claiborne, primavera soon became “by far the most talked-about dish in Manhattan”. The dish is today cliché, but remains a good standard for the home kitchen.
A simple dish, primavera is pasta with early vegetables in a cream reduction; think of it as an alfredo by Monet. Sauté cooked pasta–most people use spaghetti or fettuccine, but I prefer a vermicelli or angel hair–and blanched vegetables along with a bit of minced garlic and scallions in enough butter to coat. Season lightly with salt and pepper, add heavy cream, and simmer until cream begins to thicken. Toss with a grated hard cheese, and plate with a sprightly garnish.
I call him Sir Yancy; he comes back, in a lighthearted reference to his North Mississippi upbringing, with “Earl of Calhoun, Knight of the Linoleum Table.” But we both agree, for how he has transformed an empty urban abandonment into a both beloved and maligned oasis, that Jesse Lee Yancy III is Guerilla Gardener Extraordinaire.
In 2007, Jesse started a corner flower and vegetable garden, cautiously low-key, on neglected property near his small apartment building. On land that he didn’t own. It’s called guerilla gardening – gardening on someone else’s property. Nothing can stop the owners of the space from taking a mower to it, any time. But for years, nothing had been done in the weedy, 5- or 6-foot wide space baking between the street curb and an unused, shaded parking lot. With a “better to beg forgiveness than ask permission” shrug, he stood up a chipped old birdbath and dug a few flowers, vegetables, and culinary herbs into the hard clay.
We crossed paths soon afterwards, following several of his somewhat pointed emails about my thoughts on the legality of what he was doing (including planting cotton other than on a real farm, forbidden by state law).
Turns out, Jesse, whose conversational face belies a fierce advocacy spirit (social issues, saving trees at a local park), is not your run-of-the-mill dabbler. He puts physical, mental, and spiritual effort into his insecure garden, just as he brings his university literature background to virtual pen in his prolific blog about…well, everything Southern, including beloved writers, classic Southern cuisine, heirloom plants, social relations, and local history and lore. What he quickly developed became as good an example of garden gallimaufry as you will find, a mulched horticopia of Southern heirloom plants and cast-off broken objets trouvé.
From the street, as with most maverick gardens, it appears a chaotic tumble of flowers, vegetables, herbs, and tropical plants, patches of seedlings tucked between withered wildflowers whose seed are drying for next year, vine-covered arches and trellises, assorted containers including inverted tires, unkempt piles of soil, compost, and mulch, and rough little walkways winding through it all. However, after just a short chat with its creator, its long-view sensibilities are revealed.
“My little corner of the world is, as one person put it, a ‘garden of the moment’ as if there were such a thing. And while I’ve learned a lot from other gardeners, most of the best lessons I’ve discovered the hard way, by screwing up and having to correct them.”
“I started the garden after the death of my last remaining sibling left me at loose s, as a form of therapy more than anything. Over time it has helped me regain focus – gardening is a patient art, and it makes you slow down and look at things. It also helps you learn how to care, to think outside yourself. The garden grew slowly, and it’s probably better that I don’t have a truck or equipment because that has taught me to use what I can find: fallen leaves, sticks, pieces of broken concrete, discarded lumber and wire. I work with what the world provides.”
When it came to choices of where to grow plants, Jesse had three choices: Containers, dense Yazoo clay, or raised beds atop hard concrete paving.
His pots are filled with whatever potting soil he can get help hauling. The hard clay is hand-dug as deep as practical, the hard clods broken up and mixed with leaves, bark, and compost, with each digging and planting getting easier. Atop the concrete of the parking lot, he shaped beds with logs and tree limbs, and filled in with more limbs, branches, leaves, and whatever else he could glean, topped with compost. It’s an ancient practice called hügelkultur – mound culture, which is ideal for difficult or dry sites; as these materials break down in his moist, humid climate they become decent soil. Takes time but works like a cheap charm.
As he puts it, “It’s a lot like cooking, starting with the most basic potato and gravy ingredients and building on that. I’m not a GREAT cook; worked as a journeyman chef for 14 years but I’m not one of these geniuses you read about being in the foodie press. I do, however, know what will work and won’t work in most any given situation. Same with my garden, unsophisticated with its pell-mell plants of anything hither and thither that will grow. Having said that, I am proud of its success in having even become a garden in the first place. And though my resources are quite limited, I’m very proud of my little pied a terre.”
From midwinter antique daffodils to late Autumn asters, Jesse grows an astounding menagerie of unusual plants, both tall and short. Black castor bean and brown cotton lock in a season-long pas de deux amidst the swirling ballroom of burgundy okra, bright red roselle, edible greens – mustards, turnips, Brussels sprouts, kale and collards, and colorful lettuces – and all-season wildflowers. He also provides a safe refuge for faded poinsettias, Easter lilies, and other cast-off holiday plants, often creating seasonal hedges with them. It’s partly possible because, tiny as the garden is, Jesse knows exactly where the sunny areas stay moist longer than others, how much shade is acceptable for sun plants and how much sun shade plants can tolerate.
“I’ve discovered to start big annuals like cosmos, peppers, and sunflowers in small containers and transplant rather than scatter-sowing and thinning. It gives the spring flowers time to bloom out and give up some room. And when the cold comes I cover cardoon and fledgling hollyhocks, since they’re in the path of the rolling frost that flows down Peachtree street and leaps over the hill into my garden. I’ve come to the belated conclusion there THERE’S NO HURRY. I mean, good grief, we have 9 month growing season here, and I’ve finally stocked the space with enough pretty perennials (however run-of-the-mill they might be) not to have to worry about getting the annuals in when the daffodils bloom. It’s a constant struggle, finding room for everything and making room for new. Not to put too fine a point on it, anything that’s in my bed for six months and doesn’t put out simply has to go!”
The plants in Jesse’s garden are curious phenomenon in the bigger picture as well. It’s an informal corner-of-the-world test plot for what the international Slow Food Foundation calls the Ark of Taste which collects and celebrates the sometimes-obscure food plants that help define cultures. Southerners, think “moon and Stars” watermelon and its pickles, white-fleshed Nancy Hall sweet potato, and white velvet okra. Jesse showcases and shares some of these prized culinary rarities as a way of helping stem the ebbing away of the extraordinary traditions of which they are part.
To highlight just one, there’s his unknown garlic he calls Pocahontas. “When a friend from Pocahontas dropped off his garlic for my garden all these many years ago, he piled the dried knobby stems in a haybale near the parking lot wall, and ever since then I’ve had Pocahontas garlic coming up there. In the late winter the leaves, all lovely to behold, nod like old men in a spring sun. It’s a tough plant, always late no matter where you plant it (at least it is for me) but keeps going and is prolific.”
“My corner garden is very much a passalong garden, not only because I don’t have a lot of money but also because the garden was designed from the beginning to be a “mother ship” for neighboring gardens. People can pass by and browse, and they share plants and seeds. Most times this simple act of sharing is the beginning of a friendship, and more often than not the friendships last longer than the plants.”
Jesse shares much of his largesse with neighbors, helping newbies get started, and donating extra plants to local plant sales. But in a determined nod to keeping on the good side of everyone, he takes it a step farther. Jesse’s community has informal libraries – colorful weatherproof stands where neighbors freely drop off and borrow books from one another. But for years Jesse has pioneered the “little corner herbary” concept in which he carefully places culinary herbs where neighbors can snip a little rosemary, oregano, or whatever they need.
“Height and color are primary visual objectives when it comes to street traffic, but scents, and something good to eat, can quickly pull pedestrians in and get hooked. Especially children.”
“It’s not entirely altruistic, just to keep these plants and practices alive with new people; if I don’t make the corner a neighborhood resource then there’s every chance of losing it to someone’s vapid idea of a ‘neighborhood improvement’ project. The more people touch and eat from my garden, the more learn to love it.”
“I come from a small town in north Mississippi where people are habitually friendly and cordial. But here in the city, people walking their dogs or strolling their kids don’t greet me while I’m puttering in the garden. A few passersby will stop and chat a bit, but many just nod or wave, maybe tarry a bit to watch me digging, weeding or pruning, without saying a damn thing, just stand there and stare at me. Some discuss what I’m doing between themselves as if I were some sort of deaf automaton. I find this very strange; am I crazy?”
“Also, a lot of earnest folks who come by give advice, want to micro-manage the garden for me, and I’m grateful for sure. Luckily it’s easy for me to feign that I had no idea that “four-o’-clocks or goldenrod can get away from you in a heartbeat.” I have to smile and agree, then go on with what I was doing. They also give me art to put in place, gnomes and pretty rocks and old trellises and all sorts of sundry things. I’ve had to find a place for everything, because they’re going to come looking for whatever they gave you one day.”
“Roger Swain, the Boston native and host of the Victory Garden, once said, ‘Mississippi IS a garden.’ And he was right. The problem is, it’s not being cared for. I simply found a piece and started caring for it. It wasn’t my piece of Mississippi, but that’s what guerilla gardening is all about: Gardening on someone else’s property. If the city ever decides to rework the neighborhood street, my garden might be paved. It’s been fun, but sic transit gloria mundi (thus passes the glory of the world). Meanwhile, things grow apace. You know of my vast plans, conquering what I can one foot at a time. It’s been a lot of effort; my old body is displaying aches unknown for many years, but frankly I feel the better for it, as evidence of physical competency if nothing else.”
“I’m determined to let things run their course, grow and flourish as they will and should, and I’ve already concocted new projects that will make the most use of it.”
(from the book, Maverick Gardeners, by Felder Rushing (UPressMS: March 2021)
The story goes that Samuel Goldwyn was walking in a garden and came upon an unfamiliar object. “What’s that?” he asked the gardener.
“A sundial,” the gardener responded.
“What’s it for?” asked Goldwyn.
“It tells time by the sun,” the gardener replied.
“My God!” Goldwyn said. “What’ll they think of next?”
Goldwyn was famous for his malapropisms, which eventually came to be known as Goldwynisms (“Keep a stiff upper chin.”; “Include me out.”), but this tale about him not knowing what a sundial is must surely be an invention. Sundials are among the oldest forms of timekeeping, and over time they have become something of an art form in themselves. In 1872, Mrs. Alfred Garry published the exhaustive Book of Sun-Dials, which includes sundials from across the globe from the earliest times, either attached (to a building) or detached (stand-alone). As decorative as they are instrumental, it’s unsurprising that a great many sundials find their way into gardens, where, in a tacit refutation of Berkeley, they mark the passing hours among nodding flowers and bumbling bees.
My garden boasts a sundial, a single pillar topped with a bronze face. I found the dial some years ago on a neighboring property belonging to the same company that owns my apartment building. When I called them up to ask them if I could move it into my garden, they said, “What sundial?” Thinking quickly, I said I must have dialed the wrong number, hung up, and with considerable effort involving a rope and a wheelbarrow, moved the heavy pillar a half-block down the street to my herb bed, where it stands today.
The face on my dial is worn and has no gnomon. Take note, people: you can buy a sundial face with a gnomon, but not a gnomon without a face. It also has a rather trite motto: “Tempus Fugit.” Mrs. Garry’s book lists no less than 1,682 mottoes. They all have something to do with aging, the ephemerality of life, or the movement of the heavens. This year, I’ve vowed to have a new face made for my sundial, complete with an ornate (yet accurate) gnomon, and upon it, I am going to have inscribed those immortal words that taught my generation about the movement of time:
Mistletoe is a hemiparasite that draws water and nutrients from its host plant, but has chlorophyll and produces its own food by photosynthesis. Mistletoe rarely affects trees that are healthy, but can harm those already weakened by root damage (as from construction), drought, or pests. The word mistletoe comes from the Old English misteltan, with tan meaning “twig” and mistel meaning “dung, filth.” This makes sense when you consider that the plant’s seeds are spread by bird droppings, but perhaps it’s best not to bear in mind that you’re kissing under a “shit stick.”
In a famous Norse myth, mistletoe caused the death of the god Balder, the best loved of all immortals, by the jealous Loki. When Balder dreamed that he was about to die, he told his mother, Freya, who went to all things and made them swear that they would never harm her son. But she thought the mistletoe too weak to hurt anyone, and Loki found this out, he fashioned a dart from the plant and put it in the hand of the blind god Hodur, who stood aside while others threw things at Balder for the fun of seeing them drop to the ground before they reached him. “Here is something for you to throw,” Loki said, “and I will direct your aim.”
No one seems to know where the kissing comes from, though some claim that after Balder’s death, Freya commanded that the plant must never again bring destruction, and that those who pass under it must exchange a kiss of love and peace. Washington Irving wrote that men commonly gave women as many kisses as there were berries on the mistletoe hanging above them, plucking off one per kiss. The English hang kissing balls made with cedar and mistletoe in their doorways.