Sicily: Part Two (Palermo and some of Ancient Sicily)

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The chronology of our Sicily trip is a bit out of order in these two posts but I’m trying to remain focused on a few themes related to gardening and the green spirit. “Buon divertimento!”
Cucuzza squash in the Mercato di Capo in Palermo.

We’d planned to drive into Palermo twice during our time in Sicily but a food poisoning incident put an end to that plan two days before we were scheduled to fly to Rome. What’s worse is that I’d intended to spend that last day at the botanical garden but all I could do was vow to return. What’s a girl to do? Seriously.

This meant that we had to leave the island with only a few memories of the chaotic città di Palermo, but at least we saw the catacombs and il Mercato di Capo. My other hope all along had been to visit a market in Palermo and somehow we landed at one of the largest quite by accident.

Ok, maybe it was fate after all, a big hug from my Sicilian family from beyond the grave…

My great-grandpa Frank Amato with a cucuzza he grew in his garden in SE Portland. Since it’s much colder here in Oregon than in Sicily I know this was a triumph for him. I’m sure this photo was taken to always remember this accomplishment.

All I could think about that day in Palermo was my family. Everything I saw as I looked around brought color and life back into the black & white photos I’d grown up seeing. This awakening of snapshots invigorated me and although I walked beside my husband, I knew then as I know now that this experience was my own and I embraced every awkward moment of it. (Honestly, he’d bought a platter of pastries and was reliving his own Italian childhood as we walked through the market that day.) There we were walking together reliving our own memories yet his were real and mine were only the half-imagined stuff of stories, old photos, and dreams mixed with raw emotions. I wanted so badly to be a little girl walking beside my great-uncle Charlie (holding his hand), or to be with his best-friend, cousin Joe.

It felt strange to be in Sicily alone.

Il Mercato di Capo.

Yet, that was the beginning of an ongoing chain of epiphanies for me as I walked through the market.

Any American with a strong tie to another culture can make choices—either cut their ties and let the past remain the past or inject new life into it. I’ve always straddled my Italian-American identity and dealing with being bi-cultural in Oregon in the 1980s was not easy. Countless times Americans have told me I wasn’t Italian enough to be Italian and they were wrong. Children should never have to grow up defending their identity. They have no idea how painful and damaging those words were to me.

Besides, Italians don’t quantify their identity, they qualify it. That’s why I have a blood right (jus sanguinis) entitling me to Italian citizenship. I’ve been given that choice by my bloodline. In Italy it doesn’t matter how much Italian blood you possess, what matters is what you do with the heritage that’s been passed on to you through birth.

As a girl I’d looked at photos with family members and I’d been told that these were a part of who I was and of my identity but I know now the damage that can do over time. I was always confused because those photos weren’t of my life in the 1980s with a mother who wasn’t in the least bit Sicilian and with two brothers who in no way cared about any of this.

We’re the American generation that really is able to choose to be called American but I’m the only one of my siblings who’s chosen to remain hyphenated. This is what happens in bi-cultural and bi-racial families. Individuals must be allowed to decide who and what they’re going to be and the family fabric will change.

I wish I had siblings like me, but I don’t, and honestly, we’re not that close. For me it’s always felt like a cultural rift or divide but it’s difficult to say.

Instead of dwelling, I’ve lived my own independent life and have chosen to remain Italian through my marriages and I’m pleased now to have an Italian mother-in-law. It’s the way my life is, has been, and will be. I’m happier now than I’ve ever been. I love to cook and garden. I have an undying love for produce and fresh food. And when I wake up I drink my coffee and spend a lot of time everyday thinking of making new dishes for the many friends I invite to eat at my table.

Seeing a market in Sicily one day can make all of this happen if you’re the right kind of person in need of that kind of emotional catharsis. I’ve been crying out for that experience for so long and it’s sad I had to wait for so long and travel so far but I’m a better person now.

Ok, now back to our regularly scheduled programming…

This mosaic floor depicts the bountiful harvests available on the island during the era of the Roman Empire.  Many of the orchards had been planted by the Greeks centuries before so there was already an agricultural system in place.

Leading up to that epiphany in the market we’d spent the day before driving from Termini to the Villa Romana del Casale in the interior of the island. The villa contains the largest collection of Roman mosaics in the world and is an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The “bikini girls” is by far the most famous mosaic work in the complex. Seeing it in person was a highlight of the trip for me. It was absolutely nothing like I had imagined. The figures are quite large and they’re more real when seeing them in person. The shading on the leg muscles was much better than I’d remembered seeing in books.

I also noticed all of the botanical bits and pieces as we walked through the entire complex. Recounting what I knew about the meaning of each plant as we looked at the mosaics was interesting to John. Although he has a Master’s degree in history, with an empasis on the Italian Renaissance, he’d never read much about ancient Rome and Italy. It was fun sharing with him.

Nowhere in Rome will you see anything quite like the Villa Romana del Casele. It’s huge and very well preserved. Walking on walkways overlooking all of the rooms and floors was a brilliant design plan too. You see so much!

It really made me long to return to my days as a student of art and landscape history. I’d once worked hard to specialize in ancient art, philosophy, and history. Using my knowledge while there though really enriched the experience for me. John left knowing a lot more about Italy’s flora and the history of it too although we both still have so much more we want to learn.

Driving several hours though the countryside, stopping in the road for a shepherd and his flock of sheep, and chatting all day with John about his impressions of the place made for a dream-like day. We still had one more stop though.

We drove for a few more hours to Agrigento, on the southern coast of Sicily. This is where you’ll find the Valle dei Templi. In addition to being a national monument in Italy, it’s also one of the best places in the world for Ancient Greek architecture.
The temples are above the valley, along a ridge. As we drove into town they were difficult to miss. The view from the road below was truly breathtaking and I was left speechless. I’ve had few spiritual moments in my life, but that afternoon was truly a spiritual pilgrimage for me.
Yes, there was an attached garden too but its gate was closed.
And it was so lovely that in the middle of the ancient Greek temples, catacombs, and necropolis you’ll find this humble home built by an Englishman by the name of Hardcastle who came to “save” the temples. I will not get onto the topic of what other Europeans have done in Italy in regards to preserving the history of the ancient and artistic heritage we all seemingly share, but I’m certainly of the opinion that this lovely eyesore should have been built somewhere else—oh, and that England should hand back the Elgin Marbles to Athens.
(I also highly recommend the novel Nike: A Romance by Nicholas Flokos. It’s a love story like no other concerning the repatriation of the Winged Victory statue in the Louvre.)
This should probably make my sentiments and opinion quite clear.
Here I am standing in front of the Temple of Concordia.
It is sad to me that John does not share my interest in the ancient world, but he has other things to buoy his interest up north and happily we ended up learning a lot from one another.
Life is a funny thing and we all need our own raison d’être as the French like to say. I think it’s important that we each find our own and respect others’.  There truly are so many options out there that make life truly worth living.

As we walked back to the car, I spotted this sign and glimpsed over to the area it was describing.

Only exhaustion at this point kept me away.

I wanted the signs to tell me more—so much more.

But my body was in no mood to make the descent.

I definitely need to study more and return refreshed and prepared to Sicily.

We drifted from that ancient universe to Palermo and then to Cefelù after several trips into Termini. The days truly all blend together now.
That evening in Cefalù I purchased seeds at this shop for my mother-in-law and myself and it was a bit like a candy store for me. All the necessary new Italian vocabulary I needed to communicate with other gardeners was there on the shelves.
(This is not vocabulary you learn in your regular Italian language course.)
Then I ate something that gave me food poisoning and the trip took a turn.

John and I after a day of bed rest due to food poisoning. Our nausea made walking difficult but we made it down to the common area at least.

Our last full day in Sicily was spent recovering from the food poisoning. John only had three bites of the aranchi rice ball that made me so sick so at least he empathized. We were both unable to move much that day so we just processed what we’d seen so far and John and I talked about what was yet to come.

Wild native Gladiolus italicus growing in the olive orchard.

I wandered around where we’d been staying to take more plant pics and after John returned to our room, I sat with the Sicilian tourists at the restaurant below our lodgings and soaked up their noise as I wrote to friends back home using the Wifi connection.

The day-trip tourists ate daily at the restaurant and then danced to loud music and talked to one another. (Yes, Sicilians love agroturismo too and they’d all paid to take a bus to artichoke country to spend time basking in the harvest.) We were largely ignored as outsiders, but that last day it changed for me.

The day before I’d heard an old man on the patio playing traditional Sicilian music with his mandolin. My heart had seriously skipped a beat. That day he was back. The tourists piled onto the buses and only he and I were on the patio. He hobbled over to me and sat down speaking Sicilian dialect as he slowly crossed the distance. Looking right into his eyes, I pieced my words together carefully.

I told him in broken Italian I understood him but did not speak well. He shifted to Italian.

I pointed at his mandolin and said to him (in broken Italian), “the music of my great-grandparents”.

He asked me if I was Sicilian. I said yes. He asked me my name. I said Amato because that’s what a Sicilian means if he’s asking about your name. He wants to know the name of your family. He asked where my family was from and I said Termini.

Cha-ching!

And that’s the key to opening up a Sicilian. He smiled a wide smile and his eyes lit up. Then he asked what my mother was and I said “American”. As is usual, he told me that was ok and then he played music for me and sang. He apologized for his playing and blamed his age. He told me he lived nearby and was widowed and alone. He walked to the restaurant when he could for the exercise.

Then we talked about Oregon. He was shocked that Sicilians so long ago had moved so far away. This was not the first time I’d heard this either. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that they’d avoided other Sicilians in the United States intentionally. At least that’s what I’d been told by a relative not long before he died. We never had spoken much about it when I was a kid, but he told me because by that point it no longer mattered. What’s done is done.

The view from our bed. The doors to the room are glass but then there is a second lockable set with louvers. It’s a great way to manage the Sicilian sun and heat.

This is part of my American story and I’m proud of it. My Sicilian family thought differently and I’m happy they landed in Portland.

It’s also been said they came here for the soil. They wanted nothing more than to be able to grow vegetables in peace and to prosper beyond poverty. Unlike many other Italian emigrants, they saw success early on and their sacrifice paid off.

Last photo before leaving.

Driving through Palermo in the dark on our way to the airport I recalled having seen the bleak monument near the waterfront only days earlier dedicated to AI CADUTI NELLA LOTTA CONTRO LA MAFIA (those who’d fallen in the fight against the mafia). I thought of the judges who’d been blown up along that same road. I thought too of the brave Sicilians participating in addiopizzo. Many of them are of my generation and I know that if I lived there I too would be in their ranks.

I abhor the glorification of organized crime in any way, shape, or form. The commodification of this way of life feeds on the glorification of interpersonal violence and it’s not what Sicilian culture is about and I’m ashamed of the ignorance of those who play into these stereotypes.

Leaving Sicily that Friday morning was very difficult for me. I’d only just started watching as something inside of me had germinated and began to grow. At least whatever it was was going with me.

When the wheels of the plane lifted off, I felt an emotional tug in my gut. I did not want to leave but I left with my eyes wide open for what felt like the first time in my life.

Sicily: Part One (Termini Imerese)

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This is Termini Imerese in the province of Palermo, Sicily. It’s the hometown of my great-grandparents Frank and Rosaria Amato. It’s also the town my great-great grandfather Salvatore Amato decided to return to in order to live out his final years after he’d brought all of his sons here to Portland, OR to help them start new lives.

The view from the Falcone-Borsellino Airport which was named after two anti-mafia judges who were murdered on their way into Palermo in 1992.
Since childhood, I’ve longed to return here. Back then I heard stories about Termini from other relatives who’d returned to visit family. I knew I would too, but I’d never imagined it would take this long.
Grandma Rosaria posing at the door to her tiny kitchen empire in SE Portland. She was considered one of the best cooks in the family and time spent at her table was a gift.
I’d heard about it from my great-grandma too. If only she could have seen me there! Just thinking about it truly brings tears to my eyes. I flew through the streets of her tiny hometown in our rental car. I think she would have smiled her wide smile and laughed a bit.
Then she would have asked if I would be a good Italian girl now.
Our dear rental car. I recommend the 4-door Fiat. Fun car to drive—especially through narrow twisting streets at high speeds. (Oh how I miss those olive trees!)
As soon as we arrived for our 5 days in Sicily we picked up our rental car and drove to the agricultural area just east of Termini on the opposite side of Monte San Calogero. (More on that below.) It was our home base for this part of our trip.
Not sure if this kind of decorative chain would work in the US. I see lawsuit written all over this one.
Visiting the cemeteries while in Italy is a must—especially if it’s your “home turf”.
Since many of my family members came here to Portland, Oregon generations ago, I didn’t find many Amato family members, but next time I’ll make the necessary connections.
It’s a complicated affair. Sicilian culture and family life is not for the meek, mild or wildly independent. You can’t really be part Sicilian because you must dedicate yourself to the lifestyle with gusto and a loyal heart.
For me, this was simply the trip where I went from dipping my toe into the pool to stepping down onto the first and second steps. (Honestly, I was way too emotional to meet relatives.)
Next time I’ll dive. This trip was really just to scout it out. As you’ll see, I very much enjoyed myself.
What a lush Crassula!

The cemetery is Termini Imerese was alive with plants and many people were there visiting gravesites.

Although the island bakes in the summer sun—with scorching sirocco winds from time to time—there are a few tall evergreens in places. (I always look for tall trees.) Overall, the inner island was much greener than I’d expected it to be but it was logged long ago by the Greeks and Romans. It was fun to try and imagine what the original island must have been like botanically but since humans have been living there for so long it’s impossible to know.

Sicily is rustic. It is full of folk traditions and simplicity. There are no false pretenses. Everything central to the society and important is hidden, and yet much of life is lived out in the open. Sicily is elaborate and ornate, and yet it is gut wrenchingly brutally honest.

Much more is spoken with the eyes and the body than the mouth. That is Sicilian. That’s why the island is advertised as “being for poets”. It truly is a magical and unique place.

Not sure what this succulent was, but it caught my eye. (I’d love to grow one here at home.)

The whole cemetery was full of amazing plants, planters, and cut flowers. There were so many unique variations on the same theme.

Then there was this guy.

In his left hand he’s holding a pack of cigarettes. I was a bit shocked he wasn’t holding coffee in the right hand, but instead, it’s eternally posed in such a way as to have a flower inserted into it.

I’m sure that his conversation with God is always an interesting one. Sicily is dramatic.

This sculpture was my favorite. In addition to the woman’s facial expression—which is uniquely Sicilian and deadpan to me—she is admiring the agricultural products still harvested on the island.

She appears almost uniquely longing for the life of the harvest but is unable to reach it any more. This was really touching to me.

From the top of the hill in town it was truly a vista looking east towards Monte San Calogero.

Just a few paces from there we reached a park where many residents promenade.

I was of course fond of this broken down concrete baby greeting us at its gates.

I cannot recall the name of this tree but I’ve seen it before in San Diego, CA. Its orange flowers looked lovely against the shades of terra cotta paint and clear sapphire blue sky.

Down below was the older part of town. There is a park there and a square with a gelateria. It’s the park I’d seen in postcards depicted in black and white. It’s where my Grandma Rosaria had celebrated many festivals as a girl.

Of course we went there several times for gelato and while walking and eating I noticed this sweet act of Sicilian plant kindness.

It would have been fun to take more photos of private gardens but in Sicily I didn’t like to take many photos without permission.

Trust me, if you’ve been there and you care and respect the people, you’ll know exactly what I mean. You just don’t walk around taking lots of pictures. It makes you stand out and that’s the last thing you want to do.

For many generations my male family members were greengrocers and I very much wanted to see how that had come to pass. During this trip, the greatest joy was seeing the trade still fully functioning in a modern world.

Leaving Termini this is what you see if you head east and up the valley where we were staying. In the distance, many small truck farmer plots can be seen. For generations this is how farming has worked in this part of Sicily. I’ve read accounts of this kind of agriculture in other parts of Italy too, but it’s not as common nowadays.

The most difficult part was that it is still a job and a lifestyle for men. In Sicily there is still a very wide gender divide and women only tend to small planters and garden plots attached to their own homes.

I should add that you don’t see many women at all. There are some working, but there are many you don’t see because they’re at home. Even those who are working, are often behind the scenes, unseen.

The mother where we stayed did all of the cooking, yet she remained hidden the whole time we stayed there. I caught a glance of her one evening, but she saw me and went back inside of her room.

This was a familiar arrangement to me, but I can’t deny how torn it made me feel. On the other hand, it helped me to better understand my own family.

The view of Monte San Calogero from our room was breathtaking. The scent of the artichoke farms in the morning is something I’ll never forget. This place was already imprinted on me but being there fleshed it all out for me. I have never felt so at home.

Just for contrast, this is a town in the interior of Sicily. I stopped to take this photo on our way from an ancient Roman villa to see Greek temples in Agrigento.

I know many people love Tuscany, but I’m Sicilian and I’ll never stop loving the light, the colors, the sounds, the tastes, and the silence of the people of Sicily. It’s in my blood. It’s an even larger part of me than I’d known until I visited there.

Yes, Sicily gave Italy cannolo(i), gelato(i), and sorbetto(i) too. Don’t believe me? Look it up! For this reason alone I’ll take Sicily over the rest of Italy. It’s such a rich place culturally and it’s so unlike any other place in the world.

It may have been invaded many times, and it’s been ruled by many people, but that’s what makes it so unique. My own DNA shows signs of the island’s rich genetic and cultural history. Where else do you find Greek, Italian, Middle Eastern, North African, Spanish, and French influences blended together? Nowhere else!

Each night we returned to our room at the farm.

Our room was at one end, and at the other, some young Sicilian men returned each evening from working somewhere in the area on the artichoke harvest.

Normally you’d say ‘Hi’ or acknowledge another with a nod. Because I’m a married woman, for several days they pretended not to see me. It felt strange, but I knew the game.

One day the obvious leader of the group said ‘Hi’ to me very nervously in English. I was sitting in a common area near where we all ate. It was the only spot in the place with Wifi and I was alone. It was obvious he didn’t know much more English than that so he then laughed nervously and hurried off.

After that, a few others in the group cast me sideways glances, but out of respect, they never said anything more. By the time our visit was ending, I felt very safe around them. That’s how Sicily works. It’s all about trust and respect. They respected me, and it led me to trust them more. This means everything to a Sicilian and I enjoyed the interaction immensely.

We also went to Cefalù and saw what sanitized and safe tourist-friendly Sicily looks like and I loved it there as well. The intensity of personal interactions was lessened dramatically and we walked around freely without the eyes of the people upon us. (We also had a lovely married couple comedy routine in Italian with a local cheesemonger while we were there. John and I made the young man crack up and I felt like we were really fitting in just fine.)

I was also able to take this photo of a produce vendor. The old donkey carts my family used have been replaced with these little trucks. As you drive around the Palermo area you see them everywhere. They have the freshest produce in them and they get to market quickly. They simply pull up to the street, park and vend.

And of course that little truck had fresh local artichokes! So glad we ate them in a zillion dishes at the Agriturismo La Targa Florio.

Oh the fresh artichokes of Sicily!

I won’t soon forget you and your sister the mythical ancient pistachio of Bronte.

To be continued…

My First Citrus Lesson—and a bunch of other stuff from California

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Wintersweet aka Chimonanthus in bloom.
Yesterday our friend—and host during a portion of our trip—took me to visit his friend’s tree nursery in the city of Napa: Main Street Trees. One of the first things we saw was this amazing Wintersweet shrub in bloom and immediately I knew I wanted to use some of it for an ikebana arrangement.
Even on the dashboard I loved its angularity.

Later, after driving north to the vineyard in Kelseyville, I assembled this ikebana with some pine and pretty dried out roses that had overwintered near the winery.

But I’d mentioned in the title of this post that I’d had my first Citrus lesson, right?

The candied pieces at the bottom of this image are from a Buddha’s Hand.
It was amazing to try so many fruits I’d only seen pictures of in books.

This was a lime that my friend rolled around in his hands to release its oils. The scent was heavenly but we didn’t eat it. I was more than content just to stare at it.

As you can see, our hostess was incredibly generous, and best of all, she served a blood orange—one of my favorites.

Beforehand, we’d walk through the labyrinth of trees at the nursery with their Bengal cat. I’d never seen one in person before and I have to admit that I was probably a bit more into the cat than I needed to be but I do miss my own herd back home.

This is Willow, their German Shepard. Oh!, plant people and their pets. I get it and I imagine you do too.

This is not the best image, but I had to add it. I found the juxtaposition of an olive tree and a Sequoia to be a bit like the famous surrealist quote taken from the Comte de Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror: “Beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table.”

It reminded me to always think over plant associations.

There were bees—lots of bees, and I heard hens, but unfortunately, we had to run so I didn’t get to visit with them.

Just as we were about to leave, I snapped an image of this timber bamboo. That stuff really is incredibly beautiful.

During my drive I kept thinking about this picture I’d snapped while visiting. It was my eldest niece’s 20th birthday yesterday and she has a tattoo of a California poppy. Seeing the roses only reminded me of home: Portland, aka the City of Roses. I didn’t drink any of the wine, but I liked the label, and besides, wine is the connection now between the two states we go back and forth between.

Hours later, I made this ikebana for my niece’s 20th birthday. Like myself, she loves dark and mysterious things that are a bit quirky and I knew she’d love this slightly dark olive and pomegranate arrangement.

Ciao from Lake County, California…

San Francisco: Wine Deliveries, Lunch, and Flora Grubb Gardens (Again)

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 Crimson Passionflower, Passiflora vitifolia, at Flora Grubb Gardens.

On my first full day with my husband in Lake County, CA we had to get up early and head to San Francisco. Another long day in the car wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but it was worth it. He was going to attend a day-long industry-only wine tasting and I’d planned to take in some sights.

From the time he woke up he started feeling unwell so we adjusted our plan a bit. During harvest and crush, he really gets worn down so a rest day was in order and we were both kind of excited about visiting SF together.

Ficus microcarpa ‘Nitida’.
Other than an early dinner date with a new garden writer friend up in Marin, the city was very briefly our oyster that day. Our only serious task was to deliver some cases of wine, and while waiting in the car at one of those stops, I shot this picture of a typical street somewhere in SF.

Sorry for the dirty windshield but note that a weekday drive into San Francisco from Marin can be pretty painless during October just so long as you wait until after all the morning traffic.

During the drive, I discovered something funny about harvest. Once all the grapes are in their tanks fermenting, the whole valley in Sonoma actually smells of fermenting grapes. (Mr. B said Napa is even worse.) Coming from beer central, I should have realized this was possible but I just had never really thought about it. What an experience for the nose!

Entering the city you get to pay your $6 toll. I never get to take pictures of the tollbooths,  so I was happy this time with Mr B driving. They are designed to match the bridge and I think they’re the prettiest tollbooths I’ve ever had to go through.

After we paid our toll we had no plans and for me that was unusual—but welcome. Usually when I drive into SF I have some idea of where I am going since otherwise I’d still get lost very easily. In this case, I just sat back and enjoyed the view.

Alcatraz as seen from Hwy 101 just past the tollbooths.

The first thing I saw, of course, was Alcatraz in the distance. It’s now such a large part of my Ikebana project it made me smile. Finding my own metaphorical escape from the imprisonment of chronic illness has become such a game for me and gardening and plants are such an integral part of my strategy. I think for some of us, making the battle less personal is key to our survival. We need that distance to feel more comfort and less fearful. We need that space to heal. In a way, I’ve tried to leave a lot of my troubles on that island and I think it’s been working.

For lunch Mr. B decided to take me to the Ferry Building Marketplace. What a great little shopping area they have there! (I now know what Portland wants to have in its plan to create our James Beard Public Market. Shopping before your ride home is a such a great idea!)

So the first business that truly caught my eye because of its regionally accurate “shop locally” distinction was McEvoy Ranch. Could you have a store dedicated to olive oil and its many products anywhere else? I think not! That’s what they do. They’re olive ranchers.

To say that I felt envious is an understatement. I want to be an olive rancher too. (When he met me he was shocked that I cooked everything in olive oil. That still includes things like fried eggs and pancakes.)

I think I may have been an olive oil life-stylist long before we discussed and marketed things called “lifestyles” to consumers. My dad used to crack up when I was a girl because I’d use our jugs of olive oil to concoct rosemary and olive oil leave-in conditioners for my thick dry hair. (I still use olive oil soap but it’s usually the kind made in the Middle East.)

But oh how I now want to be an olive rancher…

Speaking of lifestyles, the gardening lifestyle is not an uncommon one to find in San Francisco either. Kingdom of Herbs was actually kind of nice to visit because it had upscale fun stuff mixed in with other odds and ends that all related to a love of all things plant material.

As someone who’s known for picking seeds wherever I go my husband and I giggled quite a bit about how I’d fit a few of these into my pockets. Not likely.

They had a lot of nice hats too.

And then there were plants…

and preserved plants and wood products. (Next year I really hope to preserve my boxwood cuttings. I really love these wreaths but they’re a bit pricey.)

After we grabbed some take-out from a deli, we wandered outside to watch the foot ferries while we ate. (This ferry takes commuters back and forth across the bay to Marin County.)

On our way out we stopped by The Gardener. It is a small local chain in the Bay Area and I was a bit less enthused by what it had to offer since it had far less to do with gardening.

I liked their display though of Japanese gardening tools. Reminded me a bit of a little piece of art I could hang on my own wall.

Mexican Flame Vine, Senecio confusus. This is a plant I’ve tried to grow from seed once or twice with little success.

Later, after the deliveries we went to Flora Grubb Gardens. I was embarrassed that I’d already been there four times this year, but since it was going to be my husband’s first visit, it somehow seemed necessary.

I was not disappointed. He was truly blown away by the displays and by the plants. As usual, I obsessively noted every change I could and thought about plants I may want in the future. (If only I could have that second garden in California.)

Queensland Silver Wattle or Pearl Acacia, Acacia podalyriifolia.
Kangaroo Paw, Anigozanthos ‘Bush Dawn’.
Hibiscus ‘Haight Ashbury’.
Valley Oak, Quercus lobata. It’s endemic to California and is the largest of the North American Oaks. Some mature specimens can be nearly 600 years old, and can reach almost 100 feet in height.
Mexican Bush Sage, Salvia leucantha ‘Midnight’.

I love all the colors and you may have noticed that incredible blue sky?

Groundsel, Senecio mandraliscae and Sedum ‘Ogon’ behind it.
 Aloe ‘Pink Blush’. What an incredible hybrid!

Then there are the exterior/interior design ideas that Flora Grubb is so famous for. I still haven’t made my Sedum masterpiece, but that’s probably because I am still stuck on that Jackson Pollock flowerbed idea. (More on that next season. I’ve made some progress with this idea this year.)

I am not sure if the wire baskets are oyster baskets, but they sure look like they could be. These little decorative wall items are kinds cute and I hope to make some this winter. I so love anything with gilding.

Last time I don’t think I added a picture of their suspended Woollypocket display.

This geometric bear head is great too. After all it is California and they do have that silly bear on their flag, so why not!

Begonia ‘Irene Nuss’.

Just before we left I discovered these two Begonias. Glad I did too because one of them I can grow from seed. It is really amazing how much leaf variation exists in this group. I truly am in love with all of them, but the Grape Leaf Begonia might just be my new favorite.

Grape Leaf Begonia, Begonia reniformis or Begonia vitifolia.
Grape Leaf Begonia, Begonia reniformis or Begonia vitifolia.

Greetings from an Amateur Botanist in CA

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Leading up to this trip I didn’t say much. I’ve had a lot on my mind, and additionally, my broken finger recovering took a slide due to my swelling disease. Coaxing them both back into splints was all we could do and it really slowed me down again.
The Rogue River in Southern Oregon.

Just a few days ago I drove down to California alone, to see my husband and to witness the wine harvest and crush for the first time. It’s the least I could do as his wife and it was my birthday gift to him. I had to be brave to drive I-5 alone and to stay in a yurt right off the highway when virtually few others were doing so. Driving the whole 10 hours in a day—by myself—was just not possible. The two-day drive was amazing!

Western Redbud, Cercis occidentalis, in a rest stop near Lake Shasta.
Arctostaphylos in a rest stop near Mt. Shasta.

As for botanizing, my main goal during this trip is to more deeply familiarize myself with the native flora in the chaparral of California. I will be doing some coastal exploration too, but most of my activities will be centered around Lake County where my husband is during the growing season.

While stopping in Redding to visit McConnell Arboretum & Botanical Garden I caught some folks fishing for salmon in the Sacramento River. The flyfisherman who’d waded all the way out in the riffles was fun to watch but I was disappointed that he didn’t know how to cast. (Sometime I will have my husband take a picture of me casting. It’s the only fishing skill I retained from my upbringing.)

After Redding I drove south toward Sacramento and San Francisco before heading west on Hwy 20 into Lake County, CA. From the point on, I was far happier with the gorgeous scenery.

When I arrived, he hopped up the ladder and began to punch down the fermenting grapes in the tank. I have to say, it was impressive and the smell was incredible. It was both good and bad at the same time!

I looked at the color of the grapes, took the picture, and then as I was on the ladder I laughed when I noticed the labels on the tank.

When he finished we walked through the olive orchard.

We were both surprised that the pomegranate tree had actually produced this year despite the funny weather.

Then he showed me what the weather had done to some of the grapes. With the heavy rains and low temperatures we’ve had this season all along the West Coast, you’re going to get some rotten grapes. This is what they can look like and you just have to let them go.

And this is what grapes in a vineyard look like when they’re not pruned. This row was going to be grafted with something else but when the time to do so passed because the weather wasn’t right, they just let the grapes go. It’s only one row, but it really shows you how much pruning is necessary to make all the vineyards look so pretty. They really prune to improve the air and sun exposure for the grapes and to ensure that they have consistency in overall quality and quantity. The whole process is really interesting to me.

While we perambulated, we were being watched. I shot this picture and admired Mt Konocti behind the mighty raptor. That’s because at that moment, I had not yet climbed to its top. Tomorrow, I’ll let you know how that went because right now, I’m off to collect some more plant materials just north of here…

How a Gardener Sees the Wine Grape

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Introductory Thoughts:
During my most recent trip to California I was asked by a friend what my relationship to the grape was and I didn’t really have an answer for him. At the time Quarryhill Botanical Garden was all around me and for some reason I just wasn’t thinking clearly. A few days later we were at the vineyard, just before I was about to leave to travel north alone, and this is how I saw it but I still really don’t know how I see the grape. I think I should have said that I see everything around the grape, but not the grape. Deep down in my heart, I know I don’t have to think about the grapes since people are paid to worry about their needs already, and I am just not part of that process. It is funny though that I do not see them as I see all of the other parts. I see the vines, I note the pruning, and I care about the winemaking process, so I am not a complete tourist, but I truly do ignore the grapes. Since I cannot drink alcohol without getting terribly sick, this is part of it, but I hope that isn’t simply an excuse. I guess this year I should get to know the grape better.
Unknown Arctostaphlos.
Vineyard Walk with Mr B
On the way out to deliver my bags to the car, we both saw this tree and were drawn to it. I have a thing for what we call manzanita, madrone and/or Arctostaphlos. So far, this is the only one at my father-in-law’s house we’ve found and both my husband and I stared lovingly at it for sometime together as we began our walk around the 10 acres before I left for home a few days ago. The deeper the color of the bark, the more we’re drawn to it for some reason. There is a skin-like leathery-ness and the quality is really kind of mesmerizing. Whenever we go on garden tours or for drives in CA, we always seem to look for it.
Unknown Arctostaphlos.

Here is that same tree as it reaches for the sky. I will need to figure out which tree it is though and then attempt to propagate it. Plant junkies may not be able to take plant material into California, but you can take your plant matter out when you cross the border back into Oregon. I forgot to mention that makes plant shopping in California a lot easier, and I understand why they want to monitor those of us crossing the border.

The vineyard is located in Lake County, CA, an area that essentially surrounds Clear Lake, the largest natural freshwater lake in California. Sadly, the lake itself is heavily contaminated with mercury from an old closed mine that is now a Superfund site, but that fact certainly does not ruin all of the natural beauty surrounding the area. If anything, the beauty should encourage a quicker cleanup of the area.

Mt. Konocti as seen from the vineyard. Small olive tree block is made up of Arbequina olive trees.

The area is volcanic and there are small faults nearby. The largest of the old volcanoes that encircle the lake is Mount Konocti and at 4,305 ft it can be seen from all over the area. Coming from the Northwestern Region of the United States I am very familiar with our volcanoes, but I find that I laugh at myself whenever I realize how easily interested I am in other peoples’ volcanoes. I think it is the ecologist in me, trying to figure out how the nature of that ecosystem figures into the landscape, the plants, and in the case of what my husband is doing, growing wine grapes.

Since they are continuing to rip out the last vestiges of the old walnut orchard by having the massive trees taken out, it allows us to look into the soil quite a bit. Some of this actually helps to determine what kind of irrigation techniques they may want to play with and it gives them a much clearer idea of what to expect in terms of drainage. Without going into too much detail concerning the grapes and their grafting, the grape vine stock chosen has a two part methodology to it. Pick the wine grape you want to grow, and then pick the root stock to grow it on. Root stock is chosen by determining what you’re growing the grapes in. In this case, we have heavy clay volcanic soil.
The great side-effect of all of this geological exploration is that it allows the gardener an opportunity to pick up some cool rocks. In this case, I am highlighting the obsidian that I picked up to bring home. It doesn’t look sharp, but it is. It will get a special place in the garden and it will come with a safety warning for the foster kids. I really had a difficult time keeping them in the garden last year, so this year I have changed my angle. A dangerous rock made of volcanic glass seemed like something some of the kids would really like. It might even get a special box so that it will look that much more special.

After looking through the rocks at one end of the property, we headed back to the plantings nearest the house so that Mr B could show my the gabion he’d made to accompany their sign by the highway. Before we arrived at that site, we had a lot of other stops and things to see.

Oldest block of grapes. 10 year old planting of Barbara or Sangiovese.
Gorgeous stand of Miner’s Lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata). It is an edible Western native plant the name of which comes from the fact miners ate it for its Vitamin C in order to prevent scurvy. Back then, the citrus trees were not yet what they are today! That is so hard for me to fathom because it wasn’t that long ago.
Western Redbud buds (Cercis occidentalis). Native to California and the American Southwest Lake County is full of them but they were not yet in full bloom as the ones near Sacramento were. I regret not having been able to snap a photo of one of them.
This is Squids the official Winery Cat. She is the least feral of the cats running around the house and she is a happy outdoor cat who eats snakes, mice and lizards during the summertime while following my husband around from task to task.
I fell behind while hanging with the cat and this is Mr B waiting for his two ladies to join him. We both followed him around during that brief walk around the vineyard. It was nice to spend quality time with his other cat because I haven’t been able to much before. I think he has domesticated her much more over the last few years.
Really nice big old vine. The outer pealing is normal. I was curious about that. The irrigation you see is part of a drip system. Growing in a fairly arid region, they have to limp the vines along with water from above not only due to expense, but due to the fact the vines must be encouraged to grow deeper and deeper tap roots. This helps over time to help the grapes to develop deep and richer taste, enriching their terroir.
Unknown Eucalypus and bloom. Any thoughts?
Unknown Eucalypus and bloom. Any thoughts?
Mr B and Squids.
New Lake County Wine Tour Signage.
Gabion being made by my husband. So proud of his incorporation of native stones into this signage. If working around Frank Lloyd Wright ever taught me anything, it was the importance of including things from the surrounding native environment and culture into your new construction.

So as you can, none of the grapes were out to discuss, but I suspect that during my next trip to California in the coming months there will be more to say on their behalf.