The Orchid in the Kitchen

In November 2015, Hershey’s announced that it would swap out the artificial ingredient “vanillin” for the real deal in its kisses and chocolate bars. Vanilla extract climbed to $150, $200, then $275 a gallon. This March cyclone Enawo devastated Madagascar, the world’s leading producer of vanilla, and given the three-  four-year life cycle of vanilla, extract spiked on March 7 to $700 a gallon.

How is it that vanilla, the most alluring essence in the world, lush and sensual, now is consigned as a byword for the bland and banal? Lagriffe wrote that vanilla “is not, strictly speaking, either a spice or a seasoning; it would seem more exact to call it a perfume,” which might go a long way in explaining its proverbial usage on country siren’s ears or ankles.

Vanilla—like chocolate—comes from Central America and is the only member of the orchid family—which some maintain is the largest plant family in the world—that is widely used as a foodstuff. The main species harvested for vanilla is Vanilla planifolia, a vine that can grow up to thirty feet long. The flowers are naturally pollinated by native bees or by hummingbirds, none of which—unlike the plant itself—have flourished outside of Mesoamerica, but in 1841 a simple and efficient artificial hand-pollination method using a beveled sliver of bamboo was developed by a 12-year-old slave named Edmond Albius on Réunion that is still used.

The fruit—a seed capsule—if left on the plant ripens and opens at the end (it’s here that I mention the root of ‘vanilla’ is ‘vagina’); as it dries, the fruits take on a diamond-dusted appearance, which the French—who have all these chic names for everything—call givre (hoarfrost). It then releases the distinctive vanilla smell. The fruit contains tiny black seeds, and in dishes prepared with whole natural vanilla, particularly ice cream, these seeds are recognizable as black specks, but both the pod and the seeds are used in cooking.

Mexican vanilla is still the most intense and robust, but closer to home, when buying vanilla extract in the store examine the label and don’t purchase any with ‘vanillin’ on the label. For many cooks—me included—vanilla is an important addition to almost any cake or cookie, and while you might be tempted to serve hot chocolate or cider with a cinnamon stick, try serving cups with a piece of vanilla bean.

Plate from Mark Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands (1731–1743).

Noting the Garden

No matter which gutter of the global warming argument you trickle down, barring an asteroid impact—I think we have a 7-year window for those—we’re not likely to see anything drastic in the next century, so don’t let the likelihood that your great-grandchildren can’t grow roses keep you from telling them that you did. Keep a garden notebook, if only by writing on a funeral home/insurance company/alumni organization wall calendar when you plant a bulb, move a shrub or sow your greens, the date of a late frost and of course the first ripe tomato. Do not neglect to include such enriching details as when Heather drove her three-wheeler all over Sally Jane’s daylily bed as well as accounts or video of the mayhem and its consequences. Start today.

Gertrude Jekyll, the goddess of garden writing.

The Poplar Poinsettia Project

At any given time in your life you’re bound to utter an idle wish aloud only to find it filled in abundance. Such was the case when in December I issued an appeal for abandoned or discarded seasonal florals—particularly poinsettias, though paper whites were involved as well—in hopes of a rescue operation ending with my resurrecting these insanely stressed and failing plants to life and color.

The donated poinsettias, a legion, were placed in a topless wooden box against the back wall of my south-facing garden. Our record-setting warm winter required only a few occasions when they had to be covered, but by mid-March while still rich with color they had begun to tatter. By then, occupied with the main beds and not really that invested in the poinsettias at all, I let them languish and decay, not even covering them when we had a late cold spell. I opened a new bed on the north, and further neglected the poinsettias while I busied myself with other chores. The first week of April, I took all the pots of poinsettias out, had to throw two dead ones away, two of the big four-plants-to-a-pot, but I’d found the smaller pots of plants had put out new growth on the stalks that still had some red leaves. After a final trimming to remove the last vestiges of deadwood, I planted the remaining poinsettias, some dozen and more, all in the strongest sun available.

Throughout the summer they thrived, putting out lush, vigorous growth. Poinsettias are known for their colored bracts, which are leaves, not flower petals; the actual flowers of a poinsettia are so insignificant that they don’t even attract pollinators. The plant itself (Euphorbia pulcherrima for those of you who might wonder) is a shrub—mine averaged about 3-4 feet—bearing dark green dentate leaves. The stems of the leaves and often the ribs, depending on the coloring of the bracts, is anywhere from a rich gold to a ruby red. Even without the holiday coloring, poinsettias are pretty plants, and they filled in the blank spots between the coleus, peppers and cacti with authority.

Yes, I knew that poinsettias require two autumn months of dark nights and sunny days to develop color, and I’d been told that incidental night light from passing cars or a street light would hamper coloring. Sill I planted these on one of the busiest corners in Belhaven, and almost to the day on the fall equinox glaring LED lights were installed on a pole not 20 yards up the hill. I expected nothing in the way of color at all, not even the faintest blush on any top leaf, so when I walked to the garden today in a warm, lazy autumn rain and found leaves of harlequin scarlet, my heart took a turn, and I began to smile.

We’ll likely get a withering frost soon, but I’ve learned to find comfort in small victories. Remember me after Christmas.

Lawrence on Lycoris, the Red Spider-Lily

In her luminous classic A Southern Garden (1942), horticulturalist and Welty correspondent Elizabeth Lawrence (1904-1985) tells the story behind the red spider-lily, Lycoris radiata, one of the South’s most beloved flowering perennials.

Toward the middle of September every garden in the South is filled with the flame-like flowers of red spider-lilies, Lycoris radiata. On the first days of the month, when the bloom of phlox is done and chrysanthemums are not even showing color, the season for flowers seems to have passed. Then the naked scapes of the red lilies spring from bare ground and flower almost overnight, lighting all of the dark corners and even the waste places. In any garden where there are a few, there will soon be many, for the bulbs require shallow planting if they are to bloom, and with shallow planting they multiply rapidly. In my garden (Lawence lived in Raleigh, North Carolina jly) they have increased until they are everywhere—everywhere except in the borders, because there are few flowers of a color that is agreeable with the brilliant nopal red of the stiff long-stemmed lilies. They are most beautiful when planted to themselves, and there cannot be too many of them. The quick color that flares up suddenly as a flame burns out almost as soon. After scarcely more than two weeks they are gone.

Until recently when it was discovered that these red spider-lilies are identical with the Japanese Lycoris radiata, they were known in the South as Nerine sarniensis, the Guernsey-lily. In Herbitaria, vol. IV, Mr. Wyndham Hayward gives an account of how the mistake was at last cleared up. In North Carolina, we might have wondered before, if we thought at all about the flowers that grow in out garden, about the name nerine. For the nerine is a South African genus, and the first red spider-lilies in North Carolina (and probably in this country) came directly from Japan to a garden in New Bern. They were brought to that garden nearly a hundred years ago by Captain William Roberts who was with Commodore Perry when he opened the ports of Japan. The Captain brought three bulbs which were, his niece Mrs. Simmons says, in such a dry condition that they did not show signs of life until the War between the States. The original bulbs have increased and have been passed on until they have spread across the state. They grow as far west as Morganton but do not survive in Asheville. Maryland is the northern limits of their hardiness; near Baltimore they sometimes survive and bloom in sheltered places. The best time to divide the bulbs is after the foliage dies down in spring.