nature

a circle of love—weave your own

 

Nothing is more symbolic. Throughout history, wreaths have been crowns and decorations. They’ve been used to celebrate the harvest, kings and virgins. Christmas and funerals. The circle stands for infinity and eternity; it is without beginning or end. How wonderful it is to honour our plants in this noble form—and easy!

Almost any pliable long stems can be woven into a wreath. We have lots of wild grape vines in our region that grow along ravine banks and roads and they are a perfect material for wreaths. Ornamental grasses, vinca, or any trailing plant will do, depending on the season.

It is easy to from a circle by hand, but if you want to work with larger, thicker stems, it’s not too difficult to build a frame that will last forever. Easy for me, because Miles and I love Home Depot, and everything is available there, inexpensively, to create your frame. And once you’ve built it, think of the things you can weave. Every season and holiday offers new possibilities.

I left the corkscrew tendrils on the vines because they add interest. Vines are more pliable when fresh, but you can soak them in water before using if you need to store them for a while.

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This is a shopping list for frame materials:

  • 1 square piece of plywood, slightly larger than the diameter of wreath you want to weave
  • 12 6″ screws (I use 1/4 inch here)
  • 12 nuts
  • 24 washers
  • drill

Draw a circle on your wood the size of your desired wreath, using a middle nail, a string (the length go your desired radius) tied to it and a pencil on the other end.

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Drill 12 holes, evenly spaced, and slide screws through the bottom. Bolt into place and your frame is ready to go.

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Wrap your vines into the middle of the circle to the desired thickness of your wreath. Tuck ends in between the vines as you finish and begin with each length. Leave the tendrils to fall where they may. Save some of the most pliable vines for the end and weave them around the wreath to keep it together. After you pull the wreath from the frame, you may want to wrap around it a few more times to give it extra stability.

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Don’t worry too much about neatness; the beauty of this type of wreath is its rustic appearance. I decorated mine with some cotton ribbon and old cow bells I found at a flea market.

This wreath is inexpensive, weatherproof and offers a great craft to do with kids. They can have fun decorating it with flowers, grasses, evergreen boughs or even sumac cones.

The vine wreath may also be made into a gorgeous holiday centrepiece or Advent wreath, decorated with evergreen boughs, holly and candles.

Now that the Halloween candy wrappers are swept up, I think it’s okay to hang my wreath on the front door…

gingko nut harvest

 

There are two ways to know you’ve met a gingko tree: you’ve experienced the most elegant leaves in the plant world (no wonder they are used as bookmarks in Japan) or you’ve experienced an incredibly vile odour because you stepped on the fruit. It’s a tree of opposites. And a tree with history. Gingkos are often called living fossils because they’ve been around for millions years and they are not related to any other plant species—they are their own species.

Gingkos have been cultivated in China for about a thousand years and the nuts are considered to have medicinal properties. In the west, leaf extracts are used to make the Gingko biloba that we purchase in health food stores, most often to help memory.

They are planted in cities along streets and in parks simply because they are resilient as well as gorgeous. Cities will often plant male trees because only female trees drop the smelly fruit. But where the fruit is, the pickers are, throughout November and December, hoping to get a fix of memory, history and beauty.

There are two female gingko trees in front of our house that create a yellow rain of leaves this time of year. I treasure them, and although it’s a little bit of work, it’s exciting to collect the fruit. If you are so inclined, it’s best to prepare in advance by gathering your materials:

  • Pail
  • garbage bag
  • lots of disposable gloves
  • disposable plastic take-out food containers
  • colander
  • fry pan with lid

Pick up the fruit, always wearing your gloves. There are properties to the fruit that are similar to poison ivy, so protect yourself throughout out the process. I put the fruit into a pail lined with a garbage bag.

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Let the gingko fruit soak in cold water for a few hours and the pulpy flesh will slide off easily. Discard the few on which it doesn’t. I use disposable take-out containers and put them in the recycling bin when I’m done.

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Still wearing gloves, scrub the nuts in a colander by rubbing them in your hands. They look very similar to pistachio nuts.

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Some people prefer to bake them in the oven on lined cookie sheets. I dry roast them in a pot with a lid (because some of them will pop as they heat up) for about 10 minutes.

Once they are toasted, they are easy to crack. Tap gently with a hammer on a cutting board covered with parchment or waxed paper. There is a thin skin under the shell that should come off easily. It’s important to remove this skin because it may cause allergies in some people. A few may be hard to clean; just discard them.

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What to do with them? They are best enjoyed as a rare and special salty appetizer, especially when found in Central Park:

Read this New York Times Article about how the restaurant Masa serves them.

Prepared this way, they are delicious. They taste like a cross between edamame and chestnut, with a little something strange and undefinable thrown in.

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I’ve read you’re not supposed to eat more than 10 per day because there may be a mild toxicity to the meat of the nuts. A small portion of people may have an allergic reaction. If this is your case, enjoy the beauty from afar or press some leaves—but tread carefully!

smudge sticks: it’s easy to make your own

 

Smudging is a beautiful, spiritual Native American tradition. Bundles of fragrant herbs, grasses and tree branches are burned in a ritual to purify and cleanse a space or a person. Although I am not Native American, I enjoy the peaceful process of gathering, braiding and wrapping the herbs. It is customary to say a small prayer when gathering your plants—ask the plant for permission to use its healing power, and show gratitude by leaving a small token of appreciation, commonly a bit of tobacco. I leave a lock of hair because it’s a gesture from my person. A bit of flour or cornmeal may also be a traditional offering.

Different plants have different meanings and the meanings vary by Tribe or Nation. The most commonly used plants are white sage, cedar and sweetgrass, but many garden herbs can be used. Please make sure, though, that you don’t choose toxic plants or plants that create toxic smoke when burned. (Check under the menu item Urban Foraging 101 for links to lists of toxic plants if you are unsure.) Pick your herbs on a dry and sunny day because moist branches may get mouldy when wrapped. The ideal branch length is 8-12 inches.

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I gathered the above from my garden: cedar (blesses and offers protection and grounding), sage (cleanses negative energy), rosemary(heals and offers remembrance), and thyme (spiritual cleansing in matters of love).

Divide your herbs into bunches for each smudge stick.

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Use a sturdily branched herb as the base and wrap or braid the other branches around it. Cedar burns quickly so it is best kept in the middle. Use the longest branches in the centre and shorter ones on the outside. Use only natural fibre or string; red is traditional, but it’s up to you. Tie the string fairly tightly up to almost the top and back downward, wrapping several times around the bottom of the bundle to create a handle.

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Wrap the finished stick in brown paper to keep the herbs from fading, and hang upside down to dry for a week or two.

When you are ready to use the dried smudge stick, light it with a candle. As it begins to smoke, keep it over a fireproof container at all times. Move the stick to direct the smoke toward whatever is being smudged. In traditional ceremonies, smoke is often fanned with an eagle feather.

To smudge a house, carry the stick and move clockwise around each room, filling corners and blocked areas.

how to tap your own maple sap for syrup

 

Making the evergreen tisane got me thinking that it’s time to start preparing for the annual sap run. If you are lucky enough to live near some maple trees, tapping for syrup is easy. I’d like to share my list of everything you need to tap for your own syrup; then all that’s left is to find a tree or two. It’s a great activity for kids, one that even my son is willing to leave the Xbox for. It’s a lot about anticipation and waiting, activities that are becoming rare given the immediacy of our technological world. Also, there’s a lot of history and folklore around maple syrup; once you are hooked, it’s worth researching and reading about.

Sugar Maples are the best because their sap has the highest sugar content (3%). They’re recognizable by their symmetrical crown, and they provide the distinctive leaf on the Canadian flag. We’re lucky enough to have two in our yard, but I wouldn’t be shy to ask friends about their trees; not many people can say no to pancakes smothered in fresh maple syrup. Other maples will work (Black Maple, Red Maple, Silver Maple, Ash Leaf Maple/Box Elder) but their sap has less sugar concentration so more boiling is required.  How to Identify a Sugar Maple

If you order your supplies in advance, you’ll be ready for when the ideal conditions strike in your area. Sap usually runs for about a two-week period in late winter. Temperatures need to be below freezing at night, and above freezing during the day up to about +7C˚. It’s exciting to go out and check the buckets every day. After several years of tapping, my son and I are still thrilled at the first run, often called the ‘Robin’s Run’. It’s best to boil sap when it is fresh, but if you need to save it for a few days, keep it refrigerated.

My son was delighted to buy a hammer drill at Home Depot. They’re about $50 if you don’t need cordless; it’s all a teenaged boy could hope for—big, heavy and powerful. I like that it comes in its own fancy carrying case. You’ll need to invest in a 7/16″ titanium drill bit, a little pricey at almost $20, but it’s necessary to cut through the hard wood.

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Even more exciting is shopping for buckets, lids, spiles (spouts) and bottles. I use an excellent Canadian supplier and am able to order everything online; they ship to the US and internationally. http://atkinsonmaple.com  The bottles shapes are adorable, and make great gifts if you are generous enough to share your syrup. My son hoards our syrup for pancakes for him and Hunter, and I use it for salad dressings. (I’ll share the perfect dressing recipe in a future post.)

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It is important to limit taps per tree. Measure the trunk diameter about four feet above the ground. For a diameter of 11-17 inches: use 1 tap; 18-24 inches: 2 taps; +24 inches: 3 taps. This way less than 10% of the tree’s sap is removed, and the health of the tree is protected. Drill the tap hole above a large root, or below a large limb, on the sunny side of the trunk, at a slight upward angle, 2 1/2 inches inward from the outside of the bark. I put masking tape on the drill bit to help my son gauge the depth. Then gently tap in the spile with a hammer, and hang your bucket. A lid is essential because it can be a rainy or snowy time of year.

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The sap looks like water and has a very slight maple flavour. If the sap becomes yellow or cloudy, it’s time to stop tapping. Strain the sap through a reusable filter into a large canning pot, and you’re ready to boil!

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The boiling down requires some time. I use the outdoor gas barbecue. A full pot takes 6 to 8 hours of boiling to get it to the final syrup stage. Boiling inside your house is not an option; the humidity released all day will peel your wallpaper! The sap will slowly darken and thicken. It’s a long day, but exciting nonetheless. I check its viscosity on a metal spoon, when it gently ‘sheets’ off the spoon (coats the spoon) instead of dripping, it’s done. (Or when it reaches a temperature of 7 degrees above boiling point on a candy thermometer.) I change from the canning pot to a smaller pasta pot and bring it inside to the kitchen stove when the syrup starts to darken. This will give you more control—you don’t want to overcook or syrup will crystallize and you’ll have maple sugar. (Not necessarily bad thing; it’s twice as sweet as regular cane sugar. If this happens, pour into a small cup or ramekin.)

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While still hot, and at the “sheeting” consistency, filter the syrup through a funnel lined with cheesecloth or a piece of felt into sterilized jars. Fill to the top, leaving little air, and seal. Store in a cool place and always refrigerate after opening.

When I lived in Quebec, I visited many sugar shacks (cabanas à sucre) where the celebration of the annual tapping is serious fun. They sometimes serve ‘caribou’ (red wine, whisky and maple syrup) which isn’t my favorite, but the eggs, pancakes, sausages and baked beans slathered in syrup more than make up for it. And they know what they are doing—Quebec supplies almost 75% of the world’s maple syrup.

Hunter hoovers up his Sunday pancakes with maple syrup.

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Here’s an easy ‘first-time’ checklist: (let’s assume 2 large trees)

  • Drill + 6/17″ titanium drill bit
  • 6 buckets, with lids (I use 2 gallon ones)
  • 6 hooks
  • 6 spiles (spouts)
  • Felt filter (washable)
  • Large canning pot
  • Outdoor heat source
  • Smaller pasta pot
  • Candy thermometer (if desired)
  • Small funnel
  • Cheesecloth
  • Assorted 250 ml bottles/jars + lids

Books I Love:

61G2m1VTIFL._AA160_Maple Sugar from Sap to Syrup, by Tim Hero

51YQgGpXvTL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_

Au Pied de Cochon Sugar Shack, by Martin Picard

evergreen tisane

 

It’s pretty cold outside and the snow is crusted with ice, so Hunter (the rescued dog) isn’t excited about leaving the best chair in the house. Lucky we don’t have far to go.

Hunter

It’s a perfect day to forage in the garden and pick some spruce needles for a nourishing cup of tisane. Most people call it tea, but unless it has real tea plant leaves, the proper term is tisane, so I’m stickin’ with it. High in Vitamin A and C, who would have guessed? I’ve read that a cup of spruce tea tisane has five times more Vitamin C than the same amount of orange juice, but I like it because it’s like Christmas in a cup.The branches are still covered with ice; it seems the needles  must be fresh. Wear some cotton gloves to pick the needles.

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The needles are a little hard to chop, but as long as you muddle them a bit with the side of the knife and chop lightly, the flavour will come through.

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Instead of a pot, I steep the tisane in a lovely glass teapot a friend gave me for Christmas. The needles start bright green and floating, and then turn slightly brown as they fall to the bottom. Ten minutes is strong enough for me to get the light minty outdoor flavour, and it seems like maple syrup is just the right sweetener.

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Hunter has gone back to sleep, and I’m about to pick up Miles at school. If he doesn’t want his cup of brew, I’m going to throw it my bath. Good for a nice aromatic soak after a work out.

evergreen tea
[Note: Don’t pick toxic greens. The following can be poisonous: Yews ((Taxus), Norfolk Island Pine (Araucana heterophylla) and Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa)]

1/2 cup fresh spruce or pine needles
3 cups water
Maple syrup or honey to taste

1. Collect the needles choosing the greenest and freshest.
2. Sort out brown or dry needles, measure half a cup, and rinse well. Chop into smaller pieces.
3. Bring 3 cups of water to a boil. Add needles, remove from heat , and let steep for 10-20 minutes. Needles will sink to bottom of pot.
4. Strain, and add maple syrup or honey to sweeten, if desired.