Tag Archives: California

The balm of thistles and a mighty tree.

tarweed

“Mmm-mmm, star thistle and tarweed — the scents of fall!” That’s what my daughter Pippin said as we started out from the trailhead on our latest outing together. Every time I am outdoors with her I learn something new. I should say, I don’t remember being introduced to tarweed  before, and that feels as exciting as brand new.

Pippin and the Professor had come from their home in more northern California for the weekend. Saturday we hung around my neighborhood in the morning, and went afield in the afternoon.

Ivy adopted the doll Madeleine for the day and took her out to gather strawberry tree fruit. Scout dissected the ripest-looking dwarf pomegranate, and we decided it was almost sweet enough to be worth the bother. We walked along the creek path to the playground at the park, but probably the “playground” on the way was the most fun. In two places kids had hung rigging from big trees, from which you could swing out into the space where the ground fell away steeply toward the creek channel. Pippin was the only one with the strength and length to hoist herself up on to what seemed to be a launching platform. Jamie tried to be patient, but reminded us, “Let’s go, to the park!”

Our destination in the afternoon was a giant California bay laurel tree that may be the largest of its species. I had visited this particular tree at least twice before, but probably not since the 80’s.

Our short walk up the hill stretched out, as we stopped to observe lichens and poison oak, the tarweed and star thistle. Two of us had painful feet that slowed us down. We saw a wild buckwheat, Eriogonum, taller and bushier than the species we were familiar with. From my reading today I think it might be California Buckwheat. But as you can probably guess, the first photos below are of star thistle, a plant you never want to have to break a trail through.

Eventually we came out of the woods onto the grassy hilltop where lots of cows were grazing with their calves, and bellowing almost without stopping. There was The Tree on the horizon, and a smaller companion alongside.

Umbellularia californica is the only species in its genus, in Oregon known as the Oregon myrtle. It’s been called by several other names including pepperwood and balm of heaven. The flavor of its leaves is similar to the true bay leaves from Laurus nobilis, only stronger, and most of my life I’ve used leaves from the abundant local “bay” trees in cooking. For a long time I didn’t know they were not the real thing. The map shows its natural range.

Umbellularia californica range map.png

I hadn’t read that nickname “balm of heaven” before our outing, but standing under the massive canopy with thousands and thousands of leaves exuding their aromatic oil, I definitely felt the olfactory presence as a balm, its scent filling my nostrils as hugely as its image filled my vision.

The children right away began to climb, and to stake out their “houses” in the several neighborhoods that have been formed under branches as thick as big tree trunks, some of them weighing themselves down horizontal with the ground. The adults took pictures of the wide views of the landscape below. Pippin and I studied the tree’s flowers, trying to figure out where they are in their bloom cycle. If it hadn’t been late in the day it would have been the perfect place to have a picnic and linger a while.

In the last few years I’ve been buying the few bay leaves I need. But I brought home a handful of the mega-flavored, special California-and-Oregon pepperwood/balm of heaven leaves, and will simmer them in a winter soup. When I get a whiff of their essence in the steam that rises from my bowl, it will keep me connected to that magnificent tree until I can get back for a longer visit.

The seeds dropped out.

When my Landscape Lady suggested Delta Sunflowers for my front garden, she said they would reseed themselves year after year. Those in her own garden have done that, and she gave me my original plants from her excess of volunteers when they came up in May of 2017. My plants did make their own starts in succeeding springtimes, but not very many, which I think has something to do with the thick bark mulch. The seedlings that did emerge were not in the right places, so I had to transplant them.

Here I will insert three pictures I took on the dry east side of California’s Central Valley before I ever knew what these sunflowers were, or dreamed that this species would end up in my own garden. These shots show how well they do with no water at all, in temperatures often well above 100°, all summer long. They just keep going.

Last fall and this, I saved some flower heads from my plants, but I could not see any seeds in them. They are very stiff and prickly by the time they are dry enough to be certain the seeds will have matured. This year my second picking of them I set on the workbench as I was going into the house, and there they sat for a couple of weeks, where I walked past many times a day.

One day I noticed seeds under them – the hidden seeds had simply fallen out. I knocked each bristle brush flower hard against the wood and more seeds came out, so now I have a good collection. I can start them myself in the greenhouse and have some sturdy seedlings to plant in exactly the right spots next spring. 🙂

 

Spring Zoë

When the sun was just rising above the groves I drove away from my sister’s house and about an hour north to visit the Monastery of the Theotokos the Life-Giving Spring, which is nestled in the foothills at about 2,000 ft. elevation. It was Sunday morning and I wanted to attend Divine Liturgy there; the service was starting at 8:30.

Christ’s mother Mary is called the Life-Giving Spring because of course Christ is Himself the Water of Life. Just as the name of our first mother Eve means life in Hebrew, Zoë means life in Greek. There is an icon associated with this name of the Theotokos, and a feast day on the Friday following Pascha.

It was a beautiful drive, especially as the road climbed very gradually into green hills scattered with large patches of lupines and poppies. This year California’s Central Valley received more rain than usual, and the landscape is still gentle and lush everywhere. Many of the plants that will eventually be stickers and thorns are still pretty wildflowers.

I had reserved a room for the night at St. Nicholas Ranch retreat center just next to the monastery, and I parked my car there and walked through the gates and up the hill to the monastery itself. I had never visited here before, and didn’t know that this little hike would right away give me the opportunity to take pictures of wildflowers. 🙂

Then I entered the courtyard of the church, through a hall lined with mural icons of saints, in process of being painted; once I saw two of the sisters painting when I passed through. The courtyard has four planters with walls on which one can sit. They are filled with many ornamentals, but especially palms and bugleweed, a species of ajuga, which right now is in full bloom, its blue spikes standing boldly up from the mat of green leaves.

On my drive to the monastery I am sorry to say I had wasted time in my too-frequent mental lament over the unsightly palm trees that dot the landscape in the warmer areas of the state. Of course in their essence they are not ugly, but the way they have been used makes them appear that way. I think sometimes it is because they aren’t incorporated into any symmetry; or they stick up in an ungainly way out of context of their setting (for example, in Northern California where I live, and where conifers naturally and more healthily grow), often as a solitary botanical oddity. The majority are also not maintained and many have more dead fronds than living ones.

Here at the monastery I was given a huge gift, in encountering palm trees in all their glory. Many species of palms have been incorporated into the landscaping, and someone obviously gave thought to how to arrange them in the most beautiful way. Gardeners care for them and trim the dead fronds. My feeling about them has forever been altered, now that I’ve seen palm trees as they certainly were meant to be.

On one side of the courtyard is the church, where I spent the next couple of hours settling my spirit that had been jangled by all the activity of getting there. What a magnificent temple! The nuns’ singing transported me to heaven, by way of Greece. The whole service was in Greek, though the Gospel was read in English also. At least 50 other visitors were there with me, including several families with young children; I heard that they come from all over the world, and I personally met people from British Columbia, and from various points in California that are several hours away. I had words with a monk who I think  was from Greece, judging from what he said to a question, “I don’t know, I don’t speak English,” and from how another person translated for him so he could answer me.

After the service we walked across the courtyard to the dining room where dozens of visitors ate lunch provided by the sisters. It was the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt, and the story of her life was read to us from a perch high on the wall above, as we ate in silence in the trapeza style of Orthodox monasteries. We filed back into church to complete our meal with prayers, and then thick and sweet Greek coffee was served in the courtyard.

After a little coffee and cookies and socializing, we were invited to another room to hear a talk from (Korean) Father Gregory on St. Mary of Egypt, in English. It was very encouraging! Her life and example of repentance illustrate spiritual truths that I have been hearing from every direction in the last couple of weeks, and which I hope to consider altogether and write about later.

I shopped in the bookstore and bought a little icon of St. Porphyrios, who has blessed me so much this Lent through the book I’ve mentioned here, Wounded by Love. And then I returned to my room for a rest before Vespers which was to be at 3:00. The next string of pictures starts with a view of the monastery from just outside the window of my room, and includes scenes from a stroll around the property that evening.

It was a deep and quiet sleep I fell into that night after spending the last Sunday of Lent at this special place. I skipped the morning service that was to be at 3:00, and walked up the hill again for for a lovely breakfast, which I shared with only two other women, as most of the visitors had departed the day before.

I want to tell you about the hearty breakfast menu: On the table waiting for us was a bowl of cut-up grapefruit; a dish of rice and white beans lightly flavored with tomato and other good tastes; oatmeal cooked with cashew milk and fruit – we thought dates and blueberries and maybe figs; cookies with molasses; good bread; peanut butter; and a bowl of walnuts in their shells.

Down the hill again, and I packed my car for the drive home, full to the brim of blessings from my oh so brief, introductory sort of pilgrimage to this holy place, and already imagining my return. But before I descended to the valley again I had one more stop to make, about which I will tell you in my next post.