Jumping the Fence

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Stay tuned for the upcoming release of Maureen’s latest book, the true life story of a mixed race French Quarter Creole family during the turbulent years of Civil War, Reconstruction and the era of Jim Crow. www.jumpingthefence.net  

Mexican Truffles

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In polite company they call it the Mexican truffle, but in the American corn belt it’s nothing but smut. In fact, the USDA has been trying to eradicate it for a century. If you have ever seen a smut infested ear of corn, you’d know why this bizarre sooty looking fungus freaks people out. No doubt backyard gardeners in the Midwest will see it often this flood year because this fungus thrives in warm, wet weather. But in other cultures the fungus is cherished like a rare and delicious mushroom truffle. First appreciated by the Aztecs, they incorporated it into many of their ancient dishes where it goes by the name huitlacoche (wee-tlah-KOH-cheh). Translation from the Nahuatl language means “crow excrement”, describing its unsavory appearance. Yet this food is still a big part of Mexican cuisine today. In fact, it is canned and sold in indigenous marketplaces, and is also preserved by freezing. It’s integrated into tamales and soups. When fresh, the puffed up kernels are boiled for ten minutes then sautéed until crispy in butter. The traditional time to harvest Mexican truffles is when the infected kernels are in their early state. This puts them in the same condition as mushrooms before their gills open. Some say they should be soft as a freshly ripening pear. At peak the flavor is described as sweet corn and smoke. Waiting too long results in a truly smutty flavor because the inside turns from delicious flesh to a mass of black spores. When the kernel splits open the spores are released, traveling on the wind to land in soil where they remain viable for three years. In the wet central highlands of Mexico and Guatemala, small farmers search their crops during the rainy season for signs of the developing fungus. These infected ears are relished in home cooking and adds to their sparse early season diet. This probably protects their crops from larger smut infestations as well. They sell the excess huitlacoche ears at fifty times what a standard ear of corn costs. In the markets of Mexico City over 100 tons of Mexican truffle are sold each season. Interest in pre-Hispanic ingredients has risen among the organic gourmet world. One famous dinner held in 1989 by the James Beard Foundation featured huitlacoche in many dishes in an effort to bring this new yet old food to light. As a result, the USDA began allowing selected farms to intentionally infect corn with huitlacoche fungus. The irony here is that scientists at the USDA working to eradicate smut in the past discovered effective ways to infect corn with the fungus in order to test their various cures. The Aztecs simply scraped the plants on the ground or with dried fungus to infect the kernels. Despite the fact that it’s a delicacy in Mexico, this black fungus has a hard time catching on in the U.S. and Europe. Perhaps it’s the black juice exuded from the kernels as they are cooked, or maybe it’s
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Galleries

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Satellite Dish Shade Structure

A recycled satellite TV dish becomes a simple rustic shade structure.

Desert Ephedra Medicinal Tea

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If the dreaded flu breaks out in your house, there is a natural home remedy growing all over the desert. You’ll find it in botanical reference books between cypress and pines, but this scrubby native of our desert foothills is nothing like those big coniferous trees. Yet it is a conifer nonetheless, which gives Ephedra californica and its closely related species a unique place in the natural world. Also known as joint fir, this plant’s foliage is easy to spot due to its long, segmented needle-like leaves. Our native Ephedra is related to, but not the same as Ephedra sinica, the Chinese native known as ma-huang, a stimulant antihistamine used there for centuries. California ephedra lacks the stimulant ephedrin, so it is not part of the pharmacopeia. However, it was in the Cahuilla materia medica, prepared as a medicinal tea. Barrows, a turn of the century Ephedra californica growing on a cliff face in the Indian Canyons above Palm Springs, Californica. ethnobotanist claims bundles of this stuff were “almost universally found tucked away among the thatching of every jacal, or packed away in basket and olla.” He also notes that the plant was harvested in the late summer and fall when considered the most potent. This may indicate there are other components in this plant with antihistamine qualities that have yet to be discovered. According to one source, it’s prepared by boiling fresh or dried twigs in water until a “wine-colored” brew was achieved. However, among early tribal interviews it was never used long term, suggesting a potential for side effects when consumed in large quantities. Another use for our ephedra was as a treatment for venereal diseases, and was named early on as Ephedra antisyphilitica. Other common names, teamster’s tea and Mormon tea, suggest this plant was in widespread use among settlers too. Ephedra tea was served in brothels throughout the west. One source claims its common name was the result of a frequent visitor to one house of ill repute named John Mormon, while other groups claim it was popular among Mormon settlers who did not drink caffeinated drinks. Local ephedra plants have just begun the process of blooming. Remember, this is a true gymnosperm so its flowers are tiny cones. It is diecious, a Latin name for “two houses”, meaning that ovary and pollen are carried on different plants. On hikes early in the year you’ll notice the difference between male and female plants with very different looking reproductive structures. Often ephedra is the only evergreen plant to make it through the dry season without defoliating. This makes it a great choice for larger desert landscapes that are looking for shrubs that bear unique, fine textured foliage that won’t wither with extremes of heat or cold. The stems grow very thick and gnarled, and over time they may resemble an aged grapevine. When creatively pruned to reveal the most twisted parts of trunk and branches via “windows” through the foliage, you’ll better appreciate its growth habit. The
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Native Ephedra Natural Medicine

Is the dreaded flu breaks out in your house, there is a natural home remedy growing all over the desert. You’ll find it in botanical reference books between cypress and pines, but this scrubby native of our desert foothills is nothing like those big coniferous trees. Yet it is a conifer nonetheless, which gives Ephedra californica and its closely related species a unique place in the natural world. Also known as joint fir, this plant’s foliage is easy to spot due to its long, segmented needle-like leaves. Our native Ephedra is related to, but not the same as Ephedra sinica, the Chinese native known as ma-huang, a stimulant antihistamine used there for centuries. California ephedra lacks the stimulant ephedrin, so it is not part of the pharmacopeia. However, it was in the Cahuilla materia medica, prepared as a medicinal tea. Barrows, a turn of the century ethnobotanist claims bundles of this stuff were “almost universally found tucked away among the thatching of every jacal, or packed away in basket and olla.” He also notes that the plant was harvested in the late summer and fall when considered the most potent. This may indicate there are other components in this plant with antihistamine qualities that have yet to be discovered. According to one source, it’s prepared by boiling fresh or dried twigs in water until a “wine-colored” brew was achieved. However, among early tribal interviews it was never used long term, suggesting a potential for side effects when consumed in large quantities. Another use for our ephedra was as a treatment for venereal diseases, and was named early on as Ephedra antisyphilitica. Other common names, teamster’s tea and Mormon tea, suggest this plant was in widespread use among settlers too. Ephedra tea was served in brothels throughout the west. One source claims its common name was the result of a frequent visitor to one house of ill repute named John Mormon, while other groups claim it was popular among Mormon settlers who did not drink caffeinated drinks. Local ephedra plants have just begun the process of blooming. Remember, this is a true gymnosperm so its flowers are tiny cones. It is diecious, a Latin name for “two houses”, meaning that ovary and pollen are carried on different plants. On hikes early in the year you’ll notice the difference between male and female plants with very different looking reproductive structures. Often ephedra is the only evergreen plant to make it through the dry season without defoliating. This makes it a great choice for larger desert landscapes that are looking for shrubs that bear unique, fine textured foliage that won’t wither with extremes of heat or cold. The stems grow very thick and gnarled, and over time they may resemble an aged grapevine. When creatively pruned to reveal the most twisted parts of trunk and branches via “windows” through the foliage, you’ll better appreciate its growth habit. The fine textured appearance of the foliage makes a great contrast against the large masses of
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Grendel

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  At least one thing won’t change, Donna thought as she slipped her hands into the alfalfa bale, pulling a flake for the horse her daughter left behind.  Thankful for the one familiar routine of twice daily feeding, she missed all the other daily tasks that composed a life as the mother of an only child who was now gone off to college to start her life. Donna carried the flake around to Grendel’s stall where the mare was always stretching her neck to steal a mouth full before the feed hit the manger.  But Grendel wasn’t at the trough nickering for the alfalfa.  Alarmed, Donna slipped into the stall then out the back into the largish paddock.  Grendel stood there in the shade of the barn, her head held low, tail barely swiping at flies. If a horse could cry, Grendel’s body language certainly showed such emotion.  She swung her head around to look at Donna, then dropped it again, disinterested. As a girl, Donna learned to beware of changes in a horse’s demeanor.  She didn’t always know what a change meant, but her grandfather had warned that anything visible in equine attitude was usually connected to something important.  “Horses aren’t big talkers”, he explained one summer at the old Langley Prairie farm when Donna was just a girl.  “You have to hear them with your eyes, not your ears. Keen observation is your most important tool for knowing if they are just conversatin’ or they’re screaming at you.” Donna felt Grendel’s sadness as she slowly approached, then began gently rubbing the mare’s withers, then crawling slowly up the mane to scratch the roots.  “Kerry was the light of our lives, wasn’t she?” Donna said in a low voice.  Grendel’s eyes flickered at the sound of a familiar name.  “I haven’t been hungry either.  There’s nothing for us mamas to do now that we don’t have a baby.” Grendel pivoted and pressed her head into Kerry’s waist.  “I know girl, I know,” she murmured.  “It’s the same for me too.” For the past weeks Donna had been wondering what to do with her feelings too.  It was empty nest syndrome all right, and she was in a real funk.  Was it time to go back to work?  Perhaps she could start a new career, or go to school for something she really wanted to do.  But there was nothing in her mind that asked to be done, and nothing seemed powerful enough to fill the void. The thoughts of equine body language brought back memories of her grandfather. “It takes age and wisdom to really bond with a horse,” he’d said once.  “Sure, you can ride the hell out of them when you’re young, but now that I’m looking eighty between the eyes, I see a lot more in them.  And I suppose I move a lot slower so I notice little things they do.  It’s the same as a horse speaking to me in their language.  When I
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Living Willow Fence – Free

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  This French gardener is inserting dormant willow whips into the ground and weaving the tops into a lattice.  They will root come spring and this will become a free living fence.  More like this at Mo’s Small Budget Gardening board at Pinterest

Secrets of Coast Redwood

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The vast redwood forests of Northern California’s coastline are mystical. It is dark and romantic beneath these evergreen canopies, where I wandered during my early years in horticulture. There in the gloom, shelf fungi and mushrooms festoon old-growth stumps and disintegrating trunks that add to the gradual buildup of organic matter on the forest floor. — This was where I first encountered giant woodwardia ferns and rhododendron occidentalis in bloom wherever significant light penetrated the canopy. Even in these second-growth forests that rose up in the wake of 19th-century logging, the redwood trees are awesome in their beauty. It is here that I learned firsthand what Sequoia sempervirens desires to grow just about anywhere winters are no colder than 5 degrees F. While the north coast can experience enormous winter rainfall, it will be dry from May to November, without any summer moisture. Coast redwood is a native tree that proves one of the most well-adapted to container culture both at the growers’ and retail garden center. Many other natives are finicky about their roots and may be difficult to grow and maintain in containers over time. Despite the enormous size at maturity, redwoods lack a tap root in favor of moderately sized roots to just 10 feet deep. Their strength is, instead, due to a network of fibrous surface feeder roots that feed upon decaying organic matter at the bottom of the duff layer that builds up on the forest floor. Feeder roots are such active travelers that they invade mulch or soil stockpiles and have been known to work their way up into raised beds. This demonstrs while still very young. The duff layer, composed of dead leaves, cones and twigs, is the equivalent of an equal amount of mulch. Provide this for a young tree and the surface feeder roots thrive, spreading out in cool, moist ground protected by dufflike surface mulch. It explains why redwoods do better in groups of three or more, closely spaced trees, than they do as an individual specimen. The canopies shade each other’s roots and provide greater accumulations of litter that acidifies the soil underneath so it’s ideal for feeder roots to draw from. A garden of redwood trees is planted with species of shrubs and perennials adapted to acidic conditions on the forest floor. (SHNS photo courtesy Maureen Gilmer) When planting redwood trees, add a good deal of compost to the soil backfill to lure feeder roots beyond the rootball. Select compost rich in aged forestmpost rich in aged forest byproducts for ideal PH, and to introduce important microbes found in coniferous forests everywhere. After planting, immediately mulch the soil surface with a similar compost or planting mix, which may be largely woody matter. Spread it all the way to the outer tips of the branches, a point known as the drip line. Rooting will always be greatest within the drip line, and watering the entire zone is crucial to reaching the entire root system. Don’t pack down the mulch.
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Modern Cactus

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  The orderly nature of modern design appeals to our need for simplicity in a progressively complex world. The simple lines of both modern architecture and interiors offers respite from strip commercial, traffic and media where color and image change faster than ever. There has been difficulty in understanding the relationship of plants to this style. But one group of plants seems intrinsically suited to modern design. It is the cactus, but not all of them. Specific types of cacti are so remarkable in their symmetry that it is difficult to believe they are living things. Moreover, their uniformity of growth is so rigid that many individual plants can be used to create pattern and shape on a small scale. Cacti best suited to modern design have round, symmetrical forms. These are often perfect globes that remain so throughout their lives. Only with time do they grow larger in size, but their surface details are static. At Sunnylands, the former estate of the Annenberg family, an innovative modern garden was completed just over a year ago. Within its confines are examples of cactus in modern architecture on a grand scale, illustrating how to exploit uniformity of growth. However, the Achilles heel of such rigid uniform plantings is the reality that these are plants, and plants will die or sometimes be unpredictable. If one of 100 identical golden cacti is lost, only a replacement of the exact size and age can fill the void. Cacti are perhaps even better suited to modern interiors. Whether an apartment in New York City or an expansive period restoration in Palm Springs, Calif., the role of cactus as interior decor remains paramount. So long as there is adequate light, and with most modern homes there is, these plants can become highly decorative elements. Here, too, the uniformity of growth allows multiplicity in design, with a series of identical plants emphasizing line or highlighting space. To use cactus for decorative elements, it is essential to understand their primary needs to maintain perfect health and appearance over time. Above all, cacti hail from areas of express drainage, which may be a ledge on a cliff face or a dry wash of nothing but sand and gravel. Any container selected to hold a cactus plant must be extremely well drained. Ensure this by choosing a pot with a very large drain hole in the bottom or with many perforations that enhance drainage potential throughout the soil mass. Cactuses are watered so infrequently that a saucer is unnecessary. The key: The entire soil mass must be saturated, which can be done only if the pot is moved to a sink or bathtub for watering. There, it can either be set in water to wick moisture upward through the drain holes, or watered from the top by filling and allowing it to drain through a number of times consecutively. Once saturated and entirely drained, the pot may be replaced to its original position. If you’re worried about damaging the underlying
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