The Green Woman

Five Little Peppers and How They Grew

KarenEach year, the International Herb Association nominates an Herb of the Year™ as a way of focusing attention on either an underused or unknown herb. This year, Capsicum has been chosen as the 2016 Herb of the Year™, as it is not only used for culinary purposes, but also for medicinal use, as an ornamental, and as a pest deterrent. The main types of peppers are:

Capsicum annuum – most peppers we know, bells, pimentoes, jalapenos, etc.
Capsicum baccatum – aji types
Capsicum pubescens – rocoto
Capsicum chinese – habaneros
Capsicum frutescens - tabasco

Peppers are a New World plant, originating somewhere in South America. Christopher Columbus, searching for a route to the Spice Islands, stumbled on these plants accidentally. He was seeking pepper, or Piper nigrum, and found the native people called Arawak using a plant they called aga or aji as a seasoning for their root vegetable age, or yam, as we know it today. This flavor was hot and pungent and reminded Columbus of pepper, and so it was named. Thus began the plant's exodus to many other lands, as seeds and pods were distributed around the world. Five species had already been domesticated by the time of his arrival, and it's hard to believe that so many cultures have embraced it as their own. Africa, Italy, India, Thailand, and China are a few of the countries with which peppers are associated.Variegated foliage of Fish pepper

Many tropical locales use hot peppers, and with good reason. Hot peppers are considered “yin” and bring heat to surface capillaries, where it dissipates, resulting in a cooling sensation. It is said that in Mexico, because of a devoted consumption of fiery peppers, a man who unfortunately perishes in the desert will never be devoured by vultures, because the peppers cause their bodies to be too hot and spicy to eat!

I find hot peppers enjoyable to grow and use. My favorites are Fish, a variegated pepper; Hinklehatz, a German variety that grows extremely well and prolifically for me; and Bulgarian Carrot, whose neon orange color adds a nice touch to salsas and gazpacho. As to sweet peppers, I love Aconcagua, whose tall plants yield an abundant crop of 7- to 9-inch-long, thin-walled peppers that ripen in my zone.

What to do with all the peppers you grow? There are lots of ways to preserve them. I love to pickle them, dry them in a dehydrator, use them in chili, spaghetti, or barbecue sauce. Make a hot pepper vinegar, preserve them in sherry (you can use both the peppers and the sherry), and make Fire Cider. Try them – you'll enjoy growing them and using the abundant fruits.

Hinkelhatz peppers in vinegar

Fire Cider
1 large horseradish root, peeled
3 medium size fresh ginger roots
5 - 6 fresh turmeric roots
5 - 10 small hot peppers
2 small onions
apple cider vinegar
4 heads of garlic, peeled

Grate horseradish in food processor and place in large bowl. Shred the turmeric, onions, garlic, ginger and hot peppers and add to bowl. Mix well. Place ingredients into 2 large (2 quart) canning jars and cover with apple cider vinegar — the best kind to use is one that has the "mother". I used 2-1/2 quarts of vinegar, being sure I covered the shredded roots. If you don't have the large jars, you can use any extra large wide mouthed jar, or use several smaller ones. Place in a dark place for 4-8 weeks, shake frequently, then strain and re-bottle.

Fire Cider

Fish Pepper Dip
This dip is only slightly spicy and is equally good on crackers or with vegetables. You can use the peppers before they are ripe, when they are cream and green colored.

Makes about 1 cup

4 ounces cream cheese
4 ounces sour cream
3 to 4 Fish peppers (or other hot pepper), seeds and stem removed
2 scallions, white part only
1 tablespoon parsley

Place all ingredients in a food processor and blend. Let chill 3 to 4 hours before serving.

Lucille's Tomato Soup

Lucille's Tomato Soup
My good friend, Lucille Dressler, gave me this recipe years ago. I have added additional herbs, as well as hot peppers. I make this at least once a year, when the garden is at its peak and bountiful.

5-6 cups ripe, cut up tomatoes (bite size — I use several kinds, giving this soup great visual appeal)
1 red, orange, or yellow pepper, finely chopped
1/2 seedless cucumber, chopped
1/2 cup sweet onion, finely chopped
2-3 hot peppers, finely chopped, as hot or mild as you like (optional)
2 cans low sodium beef broth
1/4 cup red wine vinegar (or any herbal vinegar)
4 - 5 lovage stems and leaves, finely chopped
15+ garlic chive leaves, chopped
20+ basil leaves, chopped
8 salad burnet stems, leaves stripped and stems discarded

Mix the tomatoes, pepper, cucumber, onion, and hot peppers in a large, non-reactive bowl. Add the broth, vinegar, and herbs, and mix well. Refrigerate overnight to blend flavors.

Sure Signs of Spring

KarenThe catkins of the pussywillows (Salix) burst out of their branches in early February this year, one of the earliest spring blooms I have encountered in central MA. By early March, the furry catkins had already started to turn from a furry gray color to a more luminous yellow tinged with red, signifying the beginning of pollination. The pussy willow is dioecious, meaning there are male and female trees. The males are the ones with the showy catkins that we prefer to use for decoration. The picture below shows the catkins as they have begun to put out pollen. This early bloom attracts lots of insects, so it is a great plant to grow for pollinators. The Chinese use this plant in their celebration of Chinese New Year as a sign of growth and prosperity.

Pussy willow

Earlier than even the pussywillow is the native skunk cabbage (Symplocampus foetidus), which begins its bloom when snow and ice have still locked most plants in a wintry embrace. The strange looking hooded spath emerges from its wetland location — a reddish-purple spire breaking through ice and snow. Pollinated by carrion-feeding insects, this plant has the ability to generate a temperature 15 to 35 degrees warmer than the surrounding air, thus helping to lure flies and bees to its pungent aroma. Breaking a leaf of this plant as it matures will give you an understanding of why it is called "skunk cabbage". It has been used medicinally, particularly by Native Americans.

Skunk cabbage

Some associate the first sign of spring with the robin (Turdus migratorious). Though migratory, meaning wintering in the south and returning to breed in the north, some colonies of birds stay year-round in the Northeast. So you may see a “local” instead of a returning bird. It was a custom in Quebec that the first person to see a robin meant they would have good luck for the year. The colonists encountered this bird when they first arrived in the New World, and associated it with the robin red-breast of England. Their robin, however, was from the flycatcher family, and only a distant cousin of the American robin, which is from the thrush family. However, they called it robin, and the name has become permanently attached to this perky bird.

A truer avian sign of spring is the arrival of the red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoenicius). This true migratory bird usually appears in early March, and its distinctive call — sounding like "look at me" — is cheerfully heard from the tops of shrubs and reeds. The males raise their wings to emphasize the beautiful red and yellow shoulder pads — no doubt to entice the ladies. This year, they appeared at my feeders in February — early, to be sure.

But my favorite spring phenomenon is the chorus of the spring peeper (Pseudacris crucifer). This tiny little frog, only about 3/4 inch long, belts out a mighty croak, calling in the night and into early morning. This serenade begins one night with one lonely call, and multiplies nightly into a resounding chorus of "peeps" — a remarkably loud vocalization for such a small creature. This year they began their chorus March 9 — the earliest ever for me here in central MA. Some call them “Pinkletinks” and say they sound like jingle bells.

After winter, these wonderful plants and animals are a joy to behold, as they manifest the beginning of the spring season and our entrance into a new phase of the year.

Happy Peeping!

Karen

So You Want to Have an Herb Garden

KarenIn general, herbs need at least six hours of sun daily and good drainage. The soil need not be anything special; in fact, some of the fragrance and flavor of herbs can be diluted if they are grown in soil that is too rich.  Herbs do not need a lot of fertilizer, either – they are usually happy in poorer soil. Mulching your beds with organic matter will help keep down weeds, as well as nourish the plants. Compost is one of the best mulches, and cheap, if you make your own. Water plants deeply, once a day, until they are established. Start small – don't try to grow everything as it can be overwhelming. A 4 x 8 bed makes a great beginning herb garden, and you'll have more than you need. Think about what plants you will really use and try them first.

lavender

Many herb plants can be grown in a pot, if you do not have the proper space. Be sure the pots have drainage holes, as overwatering kills many plants. Use a good quality potting mix. The size of your container will dictate how many plants you can grow in them. Aim for a 16-inch or larger diameter pot. Four to six plants can be planted in that size, with room for roots to spread. Larger pots will hold more water, too, which is critical during a hot, dry summer.  For potted herbs, I use a fish emulsion fertilizer once every two weeks or so, as it is mild and organic. Annual herbs, as well as those you have just set out in the bed, can also benefit from a mild application of fertilizer every week or two until they are settled and their roots have taken hold. Tender plants – such as rosemary, bay, lemongrass, and pineapple sage – need to be grown in pots unless you live in zones 8 and up.

salad herbs

Annuals (plants that complete their life cycle in one year) are all fairly easy to grow from seed. Dill, savory, marjoram, savory, and parsley, for example, do best if directly sown into the garden. Basil, on the other hand, is tender and needs some heat to get it going. Either plant it four to six weeks before the last frost in pots, or buy basil seedlings from a reputable nursery or garden center. The best part of growing your own, however, is the fantastic number of varieties to choose from. Lime, cinnamon, Thai, and lemon are just a few of the varieties of basil you can grow.

dill

The perennial herbs (plants that come up every year) – sage, tarragon, thyme, chives, mint, and lavender to name a few – are fairly hardy and able to withstand deep freezes, though it is always better to protect your plants with a layer of leaves or straw after the ground freezes. If you apply this winter mulch before the ground freezes, it can increase the temperature around the plant and encourage the plant to not go dormant, and you run the risk of losing it. A good practice is to grow them in a protected bed, surrounded by stone and close to a building (both of which help to retain some thermal mass) and also shelters them from drying winds.

chives 

Don't jump the gun and set your plants out too early. Aim for the frost free date for your area. Tender plants should not be left outside if the temperature is going to dip below 50 degrees. Even putting them in an unheated garage is preferable to leaving them out.  Don't forget to harden your plants off – whether you get them from a nursery or grow your own.  Put them outside, in a protected, semi-shady area, for a few days. Too much sun or wind can burn the plants until they are acclimated to the weather outside. Then, pop them in the ground, water well, and bask in the joy of a well-planned garden!