Sunday, December 21, 2014

Winter Solstice

Cotoneaster berries in snow
Today, as we celebrate the Winter Solstice, I'd like to share with you my favorite quote about this time of year.
"There is a long standing rumor that spring is the time of renewal, but that's only if you ignore the depressing clutter and din of the season. All that flowering and budding and birthing - the messy youthfulness of Spring actually verges on SQUALOR. Spring is too busy, too full of itself, too much like a 20-year-old to be the best time for reflection, re-grouping, and starting fresh. For that, you need December." - Vivian Swift 
I fully expected that by the time I reached my 60s, I would be eager to move to a place with warm, sunny winters. But that isn't what happened. Instead, I fell in love with winter in the Pacific Northwest. I love how the season beckons me to come inside, both physically and metaphorically. Winter restores me. It is a time for me to pause, look toward the future and imagine a new year. There's nothing I have to do right now. The garden is sleeping and so can I. There will be plenty to do in Spring.

I hope that your Holidays are Merry and that the New Year will be one filled with Health and Happiness. I am grateful that you have joined me here this year. I look forward to sharing more Outlander Plant adventures in 2015.

Slainte mhath!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

'Tis The Season For Fraser Firs!

Immature cones on Fraser fir (Abies fraseri), photographed in spring at
the South Seattle College Arboretum.
I don't recall any mention in the Outlander books of Claire and Jamie having a Christmas tree. But if they did, you can be sure it would have been a Fraser fir.

Fraser firs are native to the Appalachian Mountains, in an area that includes western North Carolina, which is known to Outlander fans as the location of Fraser's Ridge. (I am NOT making this up.)

The trees are named, not for our beloved Jamie, but for the intrepid Scottish botanist, John Fraser, who explored the region in the 1780s and early 1800s. He trekked through areas no European had gone before, collecting plants that he sent back to his nursery in London, where they were propagated and introduced into the local landscape trade. Those plants included the firs that bear his name.

Here are some fun facts about Fraser firs:
  • Fraser fir is the official Christmas tree of North Carolina.
  • Fraser firs have been used more often than any other tree as the official White House Christmas tree by Presidents of the United States.
  • Steve Jobs had two fresh cut Fraser firs set up and decorated in the windows of every Apple store in the world at Christmastime in 2009.
  • Fraser firs are one of the most desirable Christmas trees in the world because of their shape, fragrance and tendency to hold onto their needles long after being cut. 
  • Fraser firs are grown on plantations in Scotland and sold throughout the UK and Ireland.  

Botanical Information

Family: Pinaceae
Genus: Abies
Species: Abies fraseri
Common name: Fraser fir, she-balsam, and sometimes (incorrectly) balsam fir, which is closely related (A. balsamea)

Fraser firs like acid soil and a cool, moist climate. They are well adapted in the UK and parts of Canada. They have a conical growth habit in youth, opening to a nearly parallel branching pattern as they age. They reach a maximum height of 30 - 50 feet. Unlike other conifers, firs, including the Fraser fir, hold their cones upright (as you see in the photo at the top of the page).

These trees are highly susceptible to attack by a non-native insect called the balsam wooly adelgid. This invasive species made its way from Europe to the US in the early 1900s. In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, adelgids have destroyed 95% of the Fraser firs, creating what are called "ghost forests" of dead tree trunks.

Fortunately, there has been rapid regrowth of these trees with new seedlings replacing trees that have been lost. The future of the trees is uncertain, however. As Fraser firs mature, their bark begins to develop fissures which allow insects to penetrate. Perhaps it is best to cut them for Christmas trees before the insects get them, aye?

So there you have it Outlander fans. If you are shopping for a Christmas tree, you now know what kind to buy. As I always say - the thing about being an Outlander fan is that pretty soon everything in your life seems connected to a plot line or character from one of the books. And that includes Christmas trees.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Adventures in Food and Drink Inspired by OUTLANDER Plants

I've been exploring new food and drink territory lately, thanks to being an OUTLANDER fan and starting this blog. I enjoy trying new things and watching how one adventure leads to another. When I start working on a blog post, the research invariably turns up something I didn't know before about how certain OUTLANDER plants are used in food and beverages. These discoveries inspire me to try new things and experiment with recipes. When I write about what I've discovered, readers write back with their experiences and suggestions, and that leads to more discoveries.

What new foods or beverages have you tried since joining the OUTLANDER family? Here are a few things I wouldn't have known about if I hadn't become a fan:

1. Stinging nettles.  The post I wrote about nettles has consistently been one of the most popular posts on this blog. I've known for a long time that they are nutritious, but until I did more research, I didn't realize that they are a good source of protein. Even that information failed to get me out to gather some and try cooking with them. What it took was a nudge from Theresa Carle-Sanders, chef and author of Outlander Kitchen. (If you haven't had the pleasure, I suggest you click on over to her kitchen and check out her collection of "character inspired"recipes.)

Here's a basket full of stinging nettles, foraged from 
a fearsome patch that grows on a steep slope near my house.
I wrote to her to tell her that I wanted to use her nettle foraging video in my blog post. She was enthusiastic about the idea. Theresa is a big fan of nettles and encourages people to cook with them. She suggested I try her recipe for Nettlekopitas - spanikopita made with nettles instead of spinach. And THAT is what finally got me out the door with my wee basket. Thank you, Theresa!

(I also have to thank her for inspiring me to start this blog. I had been subscribing to hers for a couple of years when it dawned on me that I could do something similar, only with plants. She has been very supportive of my humble efforts, for which I am most appreciative.)

2. Heather Ale. In the 20+ years I've worked in the horticulture industry as a landscape designer and sales person in retail nurseries, I've probably specified, sold and/or planted acres of heather. I know a lot about these plants: how they are used in the landscape and how to care for them. But it wasn't until I was doing research for this blog that I discovered that ale has been made from heather flowers for 4,000 years!

That, of course, led me to wonder what heather ale would taste like. Which led me to The Beer Junction, a local specialty store, to see if they carry such a brew. And they do! It's called Fraoch Heather Ale, brewed in Scotland. It has a hint of unusual flavor, but overall, I would describe it as being a very good pale ale.

3. Crabbie's Ginger Beer. After I wrote about the heather ale, I started hearing from readers about other brews to try. One of those is Crabbie's Ginger Beer, something I would never have known about if not for reader comments. Unlike ginger ale, it is alcoholic. And unlike regular beer, it is gluten-free. (However, be sure to check before you drink. Apparently the Crabbie's made in Scotland is gluten-free. Crabbie's USA might not be.)

This beer is a bit sweet and has a strong ginger flavor. If you happen to like ginger and have given up regular beer because of gluten issues, this may be just the brew for you.


4. Sausage. Here's another inspiration from Outlander Kitchen. I ruled out the idea of making my own sausage long ago because I thought I'd have to buy a meat grinder and wrestle with stuffing the meat mixture into casings. But when I took a look at Theresa's recipes for Garlic and Sage Sausage and Fennel, Mint and Lemon Lamb Sausage, I realized that meat grinders and casings aren't necessary. Ground meat - pork, lamb, chicken and turkey - is readily available at my local grocery store. And sausage doesn't have to be made into links - patties are just fine. (I don't like casings anyway - they're like chewing on a piece of an old balloon - I usually cut them off of larger sausages before cooking.)

It is said that once you've seen how sausage is made, you'll never want to eat it. But that applies to products made commercially. If you make your own, you know exactly what goes into it - no mystery meat or nasty chemicals. Plus, it's easy. All you have to do is combine the ingredients, let the mixture spend a little time in the refrigerator while the flavors meld, then take it out, form it into patties and cook.

Learning how to do this inspired me to create my own recipe for chicken-apple sausage. I like this kind of sausage because it is low in fat, but the chicken-apple sausage I buy at the store has cinnamon in it. I don't like cinnamon in meat dishes. I wanted my Chicken Apple Sausage to taste like Thanksgiving Dinner. So I created my own recipe, which I've added at the bottom of this post.

4. Barley - When my kids were little, I used to make beef barley soup. It is inexpensive and filling, important qualities when you are feeding teenaged boys. It has been along time since my sons were teenagers, though, and many years since I made that soup. I pretty much forgot about it until I started working on the article about barley.

I discovered that barley is very nutritious - a good source of protein, micronutrients and fiber. It is a particularly good source of magnesium, which is important because an estimated 68 - 75% of Americans are deficient in this mineral. This information, plus the fact that I had a good supply of barley left over from the photo shoot for the article, inspired me to start making beef barley soup again. Yum!

Of course, barley is probably best known for it's role in brewing. Although I am not that fond of either beer or whisky, I found it interesting to learn about brewing and distilling. I would even consider doing a whisky tasting - especially if I can do it in Scotland! My interest led me to try a beverage I've heard of for years but never tried - barley wine. You can read my review here.

5. Potatoes - Did you know that the cultivation of potatoes was responsible for a quarter of all the population and urban growth in western Europe between 1700 and 1900? That was news to me. I still don't think of potatoes as being a super food. Their nutritional profile is not as impressive as stinging nettles or barley. But the fact that this single food could fuel SO much growth certainly got my attention.

So did the fact that I can buy a 4-pound bag of organically grown potatoes at Trader Joe's for just $4. I'm not in the habit of eating a lot of potatoes. I generally prefer non-starchy vegetables. But since I learned more about the power of the potato, I've been using them lately as the main ingredient in certain meals. For example, potato soup, with lots of chopped carrots, onions, celery and bits of crispy turkey bacon, makes a fine supper. Fresh fruit and a plate of latkes, which are simple potato pancakes, make a hearty breakfast. I now understand how potatoes were such an important fuel source for western Europeans. Potato dishes give me energy and I don't get hungry again for hours. (If you'd like to try making your own latkes, I've included my recipe below.)

What new foods or beverages have you tried since you joined the OUTLANDER world? Please share in the comments. 

Marie's Chicken and Apple Sausage

1 lb. ground chicken
1/4 c. minced tart apple (Granny Smith or Honeycrisp work well)
1/4 c. minced onion
2 tsp. ground sage
1/2 tsp. celery seed
1-1/2 tsp. sea salt
1/3 c. bread crumbs (I use Panko)

Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Wash your hands (as Claire would remind you) and use them to mix everything together. Take some time with this to be sure the spices are evenly distributed. Form the sausage mixture into a roll and wrap tightly with plastic wrap. Refrigerate overnight.

When ready to cook, unwrap the sausage, cut slices to form patties and fry in just enough butter to keep them from sticking to the pan. Be careful not to overcook or the patties will be dry.

A Simple Recipe for Latkes 

4 large potatoes (russet or Yukon gold), grated and drained on paper or cloth kitchen towels
1 small onion grated or cut into very thin slices
4-5 Tbs. bread crumbs
1 beaten egg
1 tsp. sea salt
sunflower oil for frying

Combine all ingredients. Heat oil over medium heat until it shimmers. Drop spoonfuls of the potato mixture into the pan and flatten out to form pancakes. Let cook 4-5 minutes on each side or until crispy and golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Makes about 8 pancakes. Some people like to top them with sour cream or applesauce. I like to serve them with slices of fresh apples or pears. 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

3 Good Gifts for OUTLANDER Plant Lovers

Happy Holidays, Outlander Plant Fans!

As long as you're online shopping for other people, why not buy a gift (or two) for yourself? I know you all are readers - how else could you be fans of books that can be over a thousand pages long? I also know that many of you love reading about Claire's herbal preparations and how plants are used as food, medicine and more. With these interests in mind, here are three books I think you might enjoy.

1. The Complete Medicinal Herbal: A Practical Guide to the Healing Properties of Herbs, with More Than 250 Remedies for Common Ailments by Penelope Ody. This book comes highly recommended by readers because it combines clear, detailed botanical information with high quality photography, explains which herbs to use for particular complaints, and describes how to prepare them (as tinctures, salves, cough syrups, etc.) for medicinal use. This puts the information you need - plant identification, parts of the plant to use, when and how to use them - all in one book. Before you know it, you'll be channeling your "inner Claire."

2. The Herbal Kitchen: Cooking with Fragrance and Flavor  by Jerry Traunfeld. Jerry was the executive chef at the Herbfarm Restaurant in Woodinville, Washington, until 2007, when he opened his current restaurant, Poppy, located in Seattle. His inspired use of herbs and local ingredients won him a James Beard award in 2000 for "Best American Chef: Northwest and Hawaii."

If you've never done much cooking with fresh herbs or you're intimidated by Jerry's credentials, you can relax. This book has recipes for elegant dishes that are surprisingly simple.  Would you like to start an herb garden to supply your kitchen? You'll find lists here for what to plant: "The Essentials," "The Nice to Have," "Easy to Buy, But Nice to Grow," and herbs "For Adventurous Cooks." He also includes tips for growing, harvesting and storing herbs. This is the kind of book that gives confidence to new cooks and inspiration to experienced ones who are ready for some fresh ideas. Read this and Mrs. Fitz will have nothing on you. 

3. The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes: Personalize Your Craft with Organic Colors from Acorns, Blackberries, Coffee, and Other Everyday Ingredients by Sasha Duerr. This is a book that fans of the OUTLANDER TV series will enjoy. One of the scenes in the "Rent"episode involves women dying fabric with human urine. That has led viewers to wonder what other substances might be used to color fabrics. This book may not be long on information about what was used historically, but offers plenty of practical information for anyone interested in experimenting with botanical dyes, using readily available plant materials. (No mention here, however, of the use of bodily fluids. Which may be just as well, aye?) 

Whatever your interests - reading, botanical medicine, cooking or textiles - there's plenty of information here to help you pass the time until the second half of Season 1 starts to air in April. So treat yourself and enjoy! 

Sunday, October 12, 2014


"Roger was, of all things, singing now, if one could call it that. Or chanting, at least, the words to a very bawdy Scottish song, about a miller who is pestered by a young woman wanting him to grind her corn. Whereupon he does. 
'He flung her down upon the sacks, and there she got her corn ground, her corn ground...' " 
-  from A BREATH OF SNOW AND ASHES - by Diana Gabaldon, Chapter 6, Ambush
When Dougal MacKenzie told Claire in The Wedding episode of Outlander that he was tickled by the thought of grinding her corn, the remark provided "fodder" for days worth of jokes on social media. Overnight, he went from War Chief of the Clan MacKenzie to being a "corn star" and a "corn dog." Of course, if you have read the book, OUTLANDER, you know that this scene with Dougal was something added to the TV show. In the book, he does tell Claire that he is attracted to her but it happens later in the story and the subject of corn never comes up.

However, "grinding corn" is part of the story eventually. (Which makes me think that the writers of the TV script have either read the books or had some coaching from Diana.) Books later, you will find the scene above, starring Roger MacKenzie and his wife, Brianna. And that's all I'm going to say about it. You'll have to read the books to get the whole story.

Botanical Information

Family: Poaceae
Genus: Zea
Species: Zea mays
Common names: maize, also called corn in the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia; in Britain and other parts of the world, "corn" is the word used for cereal grains in general.

Maize was first domesticated by the indigenous people of Mexico. By 2500 BC, cultivation of this crop had spread throughout the Americas. Explorers brought maize to Europe and other parts of the world in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Maize is is adaptable to various climates and conditions and thus has become a staple in many parts of the world.

Today, maize is the the principal grain grown in the Americas. About 40% of the total worldwide production is grown in the US. It is surprising that, with popcorn, sweet corn, tortillas, corn chips, grits, masa, and corn meal seemingly coming out of our ears (sorry), only about 10% of the maize produced in the US is used for food for humans. The rest is used for animal feed, to produce ethanol and to make plastics, adhesives and textiles.

The Corn Palace

You will find this unique attraction in Mitchell, South Dakota. I saw it years ago on a cross country road trip. The "palace" is a large building used for basketball games, stage plays, graduation ceremonies and the annual Corn Palace Festival. It features large murals on the outside walls of the building - elaborate mosaics made with seeds and multi-colored corn kernels. I know it sounds corny (sorry, I couldn't resist), but the effect is really quite stunning. The murals are changed every year, and if you ever see this building you will appreciate what an undertaking that is. The Corn Palace will celebrate its 125th anniversary in 2015 and is currently undergoing a major renovation that is expected to be complete in April. So... now you have a reason to visit South Dakota.

Corn and NASCAR

Before there was NASCAR racing, there were bootleggers needing to outrun the Feds. They used corn to make their moonshine and, as this entertaining article on NASCAR's website explains, "They souped up their cars to haul their bounty, and then ran from the law like their behinds were on fire."

Prohibition was eventually repealed, but moonshine is still made in the South and good ol' boys are still driving as fast as they can. They just don't have moonshine in the trunk anymore.

Related Posts


How To Distill Your Own Wee Dram

Sunday, October 5, 2014


Hulled barley on left; pearl barley on right.
"The whisky-making had its own cycle, and one that everyone on the Ridge was subconsciously attuned to, whether directly involved in it or not. Which was how I knew without asking that the barley in the malting shed had just begun its germination, and therefore, Marsali would be there, turning and spreading the grain evenly before the malting fire was lit." 
- from A BREATH OF SNOW AND ASHES, by Diana Gabaldon, Chapter 27, The Malting-Floor
Two of the goals of the ancient alchemists were: 1) to turn common metals into gold, and 2) to create an "elixir of life, that would confer youth and longevity."

They didn't succeed, of course, but you could say that the inventors of the whisky distilling process came close. Claire and Jamie's whisky operation on the Ridge converted ordinary grain into what was literally liquid gold, a currency used to pay debts and buy supplies. While drinking it certainly didn't make anyone younger or immortal, it was something of an elixir, used to celebrate the joys and soothe the pain of day-to-day existence.

Of course, there's much more to the barley story than just whisky. So much more, in fact, that this is going to be a lengthy post. You might want to pour yourself a wee dram and settle in.

Botanical Information

Family: Poaceae
Genus: Hordeum
Species: Hordeum vulgare
Common name: Barley

Barley is native to the area known as the Fertile Crescent. Today, it is cultivated worldwide, with Russia being the top producer as of 2011.

If you think you'd like to grow your own barley, Amy Stewart, aka THE DRUNKEN BOTANIST, says that "a hundred-square-foot plot will produce about ten pounds of barley, enough for a respectable five-gallon batch of home-brewed beer." And although barley isn't terribly fussy about soil, it does have its share of fungal and viral disease issues, so you'll need to take those into account. Take a look at the long list of cultivars here to choose one that is disease resistant. You'll also want a two-row barley vs. a six-row because the two-row varieties have a higher fermentable sugar content.

Barley as a Food and a Medicine

Hippocrates said, "Let your food be your medicine, and your medicine be your food." Barley shines in both categories.

As a food, barley is a nutty-flavored grain that makes a tasty addition to porridge, soups and stews.  It is rich in micronutrients such as: molybdenum, manganese, selenium, copper, vitamin B1, chromium, phosphorous, niacin and magnesium. Barley is also a good source of protein: one cup of hulled barley has 23 g of protein, pearled barley, 20 g.

Hulled barley (see photo at the top of the page) has only the outer husk removed, so no nutrients are lost. It is considered a whole grain. Pearled barley has been polished, which removes the germ, taking nutrients with it. Pearled barley is not considered whole grain. (Other forms of barley are: pot or Scotch barley, barley flakes, and barley grits. Nutritional profiles vary because of the processing involved for each.) It takes about 90 minutes to cook hulled barley; 60 minutes for the pearled barley.

If nutritional benefits aren't enough to get you to break out the slow cooker and get some soup on, consider the long list of other health benefits barley offers. Here are highlights from the World's Healthiest Foods website.
• One cup of barley contains 13.6 grams of fiber (for comparison, oats have just 3.98 grams). This insoluble fiber provides food for healthy bacteria in the gut, thus improving immune function.
• The fiber in barley helps lower cholesterol and protect against heart disease, gallstones and colon cancer.
• Barley ranks low on the glycemic index, making it a particularly good choice for people with type 2 diabetes. There are also studies that suggest that regular consumption of barley and other whole grains may protect against getting type 2 diabetes in the first place.
• Barley is a good source of magnesium. This is important because a surprising number of Americans, between 68 - 75%, are said to have magnesium deficiency. Magnesium plays a key role in some 300 bodily functions, affecting how much energy we have, how well we sleep, our muscle function and even our mood. Here is a list of 10 signs to look for to determine whether you might have a magnesium deficiency. 
And then there is barley water.
"There is a story told of the Earl of Montrose - that after one battle, he was found lying on the field, half dead of cold and starvation, by a young woman. The young woman whipped off her shoe, mixed barley with cold water in it, and fed the resulting mess to the prostrate earl, thus saving his life." 
- from DRUMS OF AUTUMN, Chapter 23, The Skull Beneath the Skin
Since the early 18th century, barley water (not to be confused with barley wine, beer or whisky) was used as "a restorative drink for children and the sick."  A quick Google search for "barley water 18th century" will bring up a long list of recipes - nearly all involving pearl barley, boiling water, a bit of sugar and the juice and/or rind of a lemon.

For something a little more more interesting, try this recipe, which includes ginger, cinnamon and honey. If you want something herbal with a kick, try the Chamomile Hot Toddy from The Drunken Botanist. 

The downside to barley is that it contains gluten, so foods and beverages made with it are not good for people who are sensitive to gluten or who have celiac disease.

Barley in Brewing

A single-malt whisky, like those above, is a blend of whiskies
from a single distillery. A blended whisky is a combination of
whiskies from two or more distillers.
Seeds are tiny miracles. Each one contains the assembly instructions for making a new plant, along with a stash of starch molecules that contain the energy required for it to grow. All it takes is water to set the process into motion. Water activates enzymes that break the bonds that bind sugars together to make starch. Once those sugars are free, germination can begin.
(If you've ever wondered why starchy foods cause you to gain weight, it is because a starch is really just concentrated sugar. Plants bind sugar molecules together to make a starch, which is a stable, compact unit of storage. When we eat starches, digestion breaks them down again into individual sugars. To experience how this works, try chewing a piece of raw potato. At first, it's chalky tasting, but keep going. As you chew, the enzymes in your saliva will start to break the bonds and the taste will become sweeter.)
What does all of this have to do with brewing? Well, as you may know, sugar is the raw material used to make alcohol. And grains, such as barley, contain a lot of starch which can be converted to sugar via a process called "malting." (I suspect that the process gets its name from "maltose," the principal sugar found in barley and other grains.) The Drunken Botanist describes how the process begins:
"Traditionally, wet barley grains would be spread on the floor of a malting house and allowed to sprout for about four days, during which time the enzymes in grains gobble up oxygen to help them break down the sugars... They naturally heat up during this process, so workers rake through them and turn them over to keep them cool and to prevent the young roots from becoming entangled."
Marsali's job in the malting shed was to keep the grain moving to prevent scorching and overheating to the point of spontaneous combustion. When the grain has sprouted, heat is applied to stop the seedlings from growing. This step is also important because the smoke from the malting fire adds flavor to the grain. Again, The Drunken Botanist explains.
"A fire made of peat logs gently dries the the grains over a period of about eight hours, and the smoke infuses them with that delightfully dark, earthy flavor that good Scotch is known for. At least that's how it used to work... Today most Scottish distilleries order their barley from large, commercial malting houses that pipe peat smoke through the grains at whatever level the distillery requests. This allows less peat to be used, helping to conserve bogs. Whisky makers around the world order peat-smoked barley from Scotland if they want to achieve that distinctive flavor."
After a bit of a rest, the dried grains are combined with water to make a mash, which is fermented, then distilled, aged and bottled. The complexity of the process helps explain why a good bottle of Scotch does not come cheap.

If you are a whisky "virgin" and want some advice before springing for a bottle, you should visit Theresa Carle-Sanders' Outlander Kitchen and read this post. There you'll find suggestions for whiskies to try. While you're in the Kitchen, be sure to check out her Weekend Whisky Write-Ups, too.

I can't leave the subject of whisky before mentioning another Outlander connection: Bonnie Prince Charlie and Drambuie. The recipe for this liqueur - made with Scotch, heather honey, cloves, saffron, herbs and a secret combination of spices - was created for the Prince by his Royal Apothecary. In gratitude for his rescue from the Battle of Culloden, Charlie is said to have given the recipe for the secret elixir to Highland Clan Chief John MacKinnon. The recipe was passed down through the generations until the 1870s when John Ross began to sell it commercially on the Isle of Skye. For a classic drink made with Drambuie, try Theresa's recipe for Jamie's Rusty Nail.

A Sassenach beverage!

Barley wine was developed in England in the late 18th century when that country's conflict with France meant that strong drink, particularly claret, wasn't available.  It was brewed exclusively for the British aristocracy, with an alcohol content ranging between 8% and 12%. It was marketed to the general public in England for the first time in the 1870s as Bass No. 1 Ale. The first American barley wine was introduced by Anchor Brewing Company in the 1970s, under the name Old Foghorn Barleywine Style Ale.

English barley wine tends to be a darker, smoother, less hoppy beverage than the American style. The American version is more bitter, with more hops flavor and a lighter, amber color. The barley wine shown at left, brewed in Washington state by the Port Townsend Brewing Company, has a rich, red-amber color, a strong hops flavor, a smooth finish and a 10.5% alcohol content.

After the glamour of whisky and barley wine, beer seems downright ordinary, perhaps because it is. Beer is the world's most widely consumed alcoholic beverage. After water and tea, it is the next most popular beverage worldwide. Beer is also likely the oldest fermented drink with the Celts and Germanic tribes brewing it as far back as 3000 BC. It may even trace its origins to the Neolithic era around 9500 BC, when cereal grain was first farmed.

Beer is brewed using malted barley and sometimes wheat. Hops are added to provide flavor, bitterness and something of a preservative. There are many variations on this theme, resulting in brews that vary in color, flavor and alcohol content. Styles include: lager, stout, wheat, pale ale, and lambic.

John Barleycorn Must Die

Beer. Whisky. Barley wine. Sometimes the party gets out of hand. And when it does, lives are ruined. When I first heard "John Barleycorn Must Die," back in the 1960s, it sounded to me like a revenge song. I thought it was about wanting to destroy barley to get even for all the destruction "demon drink" had caused.

But the most famous version of the Legend of John Barleycorn, by Scottish poet Robert Burns, tells quite a different story. Barley is "portrayed as an almost Christ-like figure, suffering greatly before finally dying in order that others may live." Burns' poem provides the lyrics of the familiar folksong.

There you have it - versatile barley. Good nutrition, PLUS wine, whisky, and song. Please enjoy responsibly.

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Heathers and Heaths

Friday, September 26, 2014

How To Distill Your Own Wee Dram

These are troubling times in the Fandom. 

Starz announced this week that instead of the second half of Season 1 of Outlander beginning in January, it will start on April 7, 2015. This news went down badly with fans who were already wondering what they were going to do with themselves from the time when Episode 8 airs on September 27 until the first of the year when Episode 9 was going to arrive.
Waddya mean? We have to wait six whole MONTHS? Waaaaah! 
This from people who should be used to waiting. Diana Gabaldon, prolific as she is, says that it takes her three to four years (not months) to write one of her Big Books. Doing the math, that means that since the most recent book in the Outlander series, In My Own Heart's Blood, came out in June of this year, we won't see the next book in the series until summer of 2017 or 2018. That makes waiting until April for a new TV episode seem like no big deal.

It happens that this upset over the date change is happening at the same time that I am doing research for a post on barley - a far more interesting subject than I ever expected. The research has led me to do some reading about how barley is used in the making of barley wine, beer and whisky. And once I got past the information on malting and fermenting, the next thing I wanted to know was how whisky is distilled.

As I was watching YouTube videos, it occurred to me - if anyone needs an Outlander-related activity to keep them occupied for the next 6 months, building a still and making whisky could be just the thing.

You're going to start by making wort, a liquid drawn from the mash of malted barley which contains the sugars that will convert to alcohol in the fermenting process. Unless you are really desperate for something to do, I'm not going to send you to the malting shed with bags of wet barley grain. To keep this simple, go to your local home-brew store and buy malt extract. That will save you the steps of malting the barley, making the mash, and extracting malt from it. You simply mix the malt extract with water to make the wort. While at the home-brew store, ask about recipes and buy the yeast you will use for fermenting the wort. You will also need to buy a large glass container in which to store the wort while it ferments. When fermentation is complete, you are ready for distilling.

This article, How to Make Whisky - Step by Step, is a good overview of the entire process. Before you get invested too much in this project, you should give it a read.

The basics of still manufacture are pretty simple, as this article 3 Ways to Build a Still explains. If you are more of a visual learner, here's a video, below, that explains what to do. You can probably build a still for around $100.

There's enough to do here to keep you busy for weeks. And if your attempts are less than hoped for, you can always pop into a bottle shop on April 6 and buy a bottle of the good stuff to sip while you watch Episode 9.

Slainte mhath!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

3 Reasons To Love Latin Plant Names

Cue Tina Turner...

What's Latin got to do, got to do with it? 

What's Latin, but a sweet old fashioned language? 

What's in a name? Quite a lot, as it happens, in the world of horticulture. Consider the flap over plants in Episode 3 of Outlander. Claire correctly explains that Convallaria majalis, commonly known as lily of the valley, is often mistaken for wood garlic, Allium ursinum. However, the plant she identifies as lily of the valley is not Convallaria - a fact pointed out by many viewers - it doesn't even look similar. Because the script was so clear, specifying Convallaria, one wonders how such a mistake could have happened.

Lily of the Valley shrub - Pieris japonica 
My guess, and this is only a guess, is that the person sent to find the plant for filming the episode was simply told to find a "lily of the valley." That seems innocent enough, especially to people who don't have much experience, but if you want a specific plant, the only way to assure accuracy is to use its Latin, scientific name. Using the common name, lily of the valley, can get you into trouble because more than one plant may have that name. Possibilities in this case include: false lily of the valley (Maianthemum dilatum), which seems most likely the plant used for the show, or lily of the valley shrub (Pieris sp.

I can sympathize with the producers of the show, because of my experience as a landscape designer. Designers and architects specify plants for landscape plans using Latin names because we are very particular about form, size and color. We know precisely which plants will deliver those characteristics, and we strive to be as clear as possible with our instructions. But nearly all of us have had the experience of visiting a job site and being horrified to find that an installer has taken it upon himself to make some substitutions. If I have specified a dwarf conifer that will fit nicely into a small, urban garden, I am not happy to see that one of its relatives, a forest tree that wants to be 150 feet tall, has taken its place. 

That said, if you are not in the horticulture business, do Latin plant names really matter? If you are a gardener or have any interest in plants, I believe so. Here are three reasons:

1) Latin botanical names are names without borders. No matter what country you live in and no matter what language you speak, botanists, biologists, nursery professionals, landscape designers, architects and savvy gardeners all use the same Latin, scientific name for the same plant.

2) Using Latin names eliminates confusion. Plants have common names, but these names vary from place to place. You can't assume that the common name that you have for a plant means the same thing to other people.

Is this a mango? 
One of my hort instructors told us a story about ordering a pizza while visiting in Ohio. Looking through the list of toppings, he was surprised to see that mangoes were offered. Thinking that an orange, tropical fruit was rather an exotic choice, particularly in the midwestern US, he had to ask. Turns out, "mango" is what the locals there call green bell pepper. It's one more example of how common names can cause misunderstandings.

3) Finally, when ye have a wee bit o' the Latin, the names will tell ye more about the wee plants, ye ken?  Here's brief list of Latin species names to give you an idea.

alba - white
aurea - yellow or gold (Au being the chemical symbol for gold)
baccata - having berry-like fruit
callosum - thickened, calloused
compacta - small, compact
dendatum - toothed
fasciata - bound together
ilicifolia - having leaves like holly
indica - native to India
lacteum - milky
macrophylla - having big leaves
nana - small
nigra - black
palustris - loves marshes
pendula - pendulous, weeping
purpurea -  purple
rubra - red
spinosa - spiny or thorny
sylvatica - of the forest
tortuosum -  twisted, contorted
umbraculifera - umbrella-like
variegata - variegated, usually refers to foliage with more than one color
viridis - green
vulgaris - common

Want to know more? Have a name you want to look up? Go to the Botanical Dictionary at Dave's Garden.

Related Post:

Right Plants, Wrong Season?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Rowan Tree

"I had no idea how much time had passed since I had entered the standing stones, or how long I had lain unconscious on the hillside below the circle. Quite a while, judging from the sogginess of my clothing; I was soaked through to the skin, and small chilly rivulets ran down my sides under my gown. 
One numbed cheek was beginning to tingle; putting a hand to it, I could feel a pattern of incised bumps. I looked down and saw a layer of fallen rowan berries, gleaming red and black among the grass. Very appropriate, I thought, vaguely amused. I had fallen down under a rowan - the Highland protection against witchcraft and enchantment." 
- from VOYAGER, by Diana Gabaldon, Chapter 24
Rowan, or "Luis" in Gaelic, is both a tree and the name of the second character in the Celtic Ogham Tree Alphabet. Examples of writing with this alphabet can be found in manuscripts dating from the 6th to 9th centuries and inscriptions on standing stones in Scotland, Ireland and Wales, dating as far back as 400 AD. (Here are maps showing the locations of some of these stones.) Ogham was used to write Primitive Irish, Welsh, Pictish and Latin.

The origin of this alphabet is a mystery:
  • Was it invented before the time of Jesus by Druids that inhabited northern Italy? 
  • Was it a secret code used by Celtic people to communicate in a way that couldn't be deciphered by those who spoke only Latin? 
  • Was it a way to combine Latin and Celtic languages as intermarriage brought the two cultures together? 
Historians and scholars have come up with different theories, but no one has the answer.

Ellen Evert Hopman, an herbalist, researcher and modern day Druid priestess, offers her understanding of the Ogham Tree Alphabet in her book, A Druid's Herbal of Sacred Tree Medicine.
"The 'Tree Alphabet' is a vital bit of tree lore that has been handed down through the centuries. The ancient Scots, Irish and other Celtic peoples did not use the alphabet that we use today (A, B, C, and so forth). They had their own script, called Ogham, which was both a type of sign language and a written alphabet... Ogham was not used to write books, it was used on commemorative stones such as burial markers. It was used for magic: an Ogham spell could be written on a scrap of tree bark and placed in the way of an advancing army, which would stop them in their tracks."
There are 20 characters in this alphabet, one for each of the trees sacred to the Celts. It makes sense that the letters were named for trees because of the close relationship people had with the natural world. Trees were a source of food, medicine, and material for shelter and tools. For ancient people, trees also had religious, spiritual and magical significance.

The significance of the Rowan tree was that it provided protection from witchcraft and evil spirits. It was called "the Druid's tree."  According to Hopman, it was an important wood in the celebration of Beltane: "A rowan fire in the hearth brought luck on May Day morning." In autumn, garlands of red rowan berries were worn by women in the Highlands to keep them safe. The Scots made tiny Xs of rowan wood, bound with red thread, and sewed them into clothing to protect against witchcraft. Implements, cradles and coffins were made of rowan wood as protection from evil.

As ye may remember, Dougal MacKenzie told Claire how Geillis Duncan met her end: "Sent to the devil in a pillar of flame, under the branches of a rowan tree."

Botanical Information

Family: Rosaceae
Genus: Sorbus
Species: Sorbus aucuparia (red berries) and Sorbus americana (orange berries)
Common names: rowan, witch tree, mountain ash

Note: in spite of its common name, rowan is not really an ash - true ash trees are in the Oleaceae family, genus Fraxinus.

Sorbus aucuparia, European mountain ash, is native to Europe, western Asia and Siberia. Sorbus americana is native to eastern North America.

Rowans are striking trees in the landscape with deep green foliage and abundant clusters of white flowers in spring. The flowers give way to large displays of red or orange berries in fall.

Because these trees are in the rose family, they are susceptible to the same fungal diseases. To deter black spot and scab, use members of the Allium genus as companion plants. Alliums include: garlic, chives, onions and shallots.

Culinary Uses

Rowan berries are very bitter if eaten raw, but are palatable when used in jams, jellies, compotes, syrups, wine and liqueur.

Medicinal Uses

Rowan berries are a good source of Vitamin C, used to treat or prevent scurvy. The berries have been used in traditional Austrian medicine to make tea, syrup, jelly and liqueur for the treatment of respiratory problems, fevers, infections, and gout.

Hopman says that Scottish Highlanders simmered rowan berries, apples and honey to make a syrup to treat colds, coughs, fevers and sore throats.

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