December 25, 2015

Our Christmas Festivities

Clove-studded oranges, or Pomander balls, were featured on our Holiday table. We used to make these wreathes and Della Robia style decorations back in the 1960's and 1970's to exhibit at the Worcester County Horticultural Society Holiday show. This year, I decided to try and make them again. The scent brought me back but the pain from shoving cloves into oranges did too!

 A very happy Christmas to everyone! Here in the Eastern US, as you undoubtedly have heard, it's been unseasonably warm - if not balmy. Today I think we reached nearly 70 degrees F. and broke an all time record for having not a speck of snow here in Worcester, MA, but warm Christmases are not unheard of here in New England ( as in the movie White Christmas), I am sure we will get our share of winter soon enough. Here are some pic's of our Holiday festivities this year. I'd love to hear about your family traditions, especially if they involve plants, but food is OK too, as you will see in this very 'food-bloggy' looking post! After-all, it IS the Holiday season!

Christmas is often all about nostalgia and tradition. In Worcester, MA where I live, there are many Eastern European markets such as this Polish market, which carry imported treats and home made items not only from Poland, but from Latvia, Estonia, Russia and Lithuania. I heard stories about my grandmother, whom I never met, who used to shop on this same street in the early 20th Century. I used to go with my mother to buy sauerkraut, horseradish, sausages and fresh churned butter and farmers cheese for the Holidays. The scent of the herring barrels, garlic pickles  and rye bread transports me back to my childhood.

 I usually make (don't gross out now!) Jellied pigs feet, which in Lithuanian is called Košeliena. Just around the corner from the Eastern European markets here are some very good Asian markets. This one always had split pigs feet, as well as duck heads and cleaned chicken feet (hey, I warned you!). All this will make for a nice, clear aspic in which tender braised pork with be set in.

A selection of pigs feet, hocks, chicken feet and pork neck bones will be slowly boiled in a stock pot for about 20 hours, then strained. Not unlike chicken stock, it contains carrots, onions and parsley from the garden. The bones are removed, the clear stock strained and it will set into an amazing gelatin.

Once the Košeliena is set, it is unfolded, cut into cubes or slices and served with freshly grated horseradish and beets from the garden, vinegar and flaked salt. My brothers and sisters hate it, but Joe and I can't get enough of it, and we make so much, that we share it with our elderly Lithuanian neighbors who really cherish it.

Like many cultural Holiday meals, its all about tradition. The Christmas Eve Kūčias traditionally was (pre-Christianity) was a winter solstice event, complete with talking animals and seven cold courses of fish, dried fruits and beets. Today, many traditional dishes include primarily fish with no dairy or meat, but we deviate with - um - Prime rid, but balance it off with other Lithuanian dishes such as beet soup, pickled herring and fruit compote, but nothing beats the family favorite - virtiniai, cheese filled dumplings swimming in melted butter. Similar to Polish pierogi, these contain no potato and are 'lighter', generally speaking.

Gingerbread Houses made a debut at our house this year. They were much harder to make than we realized.
 On a sweeter note, but still not garden or plant related - my friends Jess Rosenkranz and Glen Lord came over to make Gingerbread houses. I don't know what we were thinkings, as it was a bit of an undertaking which next year we will know better and start a few days in advance. Still, for our first try, it wasn't that bad.

I try to decorate the studio in a different way each year at Christmas, sometimes working with a theme. This year, I referenced Scandinavian Jul decorations, Saint Lucia wreaths and old-world pomanders ( clove-studded citrus), which my sister and I used to make each Christmas until our thumbs bleed. I forgot how much work these were, but then in true 'Matt fashion' I decided to 'raise the bar' and make some boxwood trees like those used in colonial Williamsburg. 

Fruit and evergreens are very traditional Holiday decorations. This Della Robia style was adopted in North America and influenced the Colonial Williamsburg style of decorating, with pineapples, magnolia leaves and citrus. Many Old-World designs used citrus, pears, apples and greens such as holly, boxwood and mistletoe. 

The Loquat tree, planted in the ground inside the greenhouse is almost 16 feet tall, and it blooms around christmastime. I never seems to set fruit, but the foliage is nice and tropical looking.

I started with a base of cake stands and foam cones, which I hot-glued together. I picked some loquat leaved from the greenhouse, since hey - I had loquat leaves, and no magnolia leaves which would have been more traditional.

As you can see, they ended up looking rather fancy, but everyone seems to enjoy the decor.  I added some Forelle pears and kumquats to the topiary trees as well. In the wreath, I also used battery powered candles for obvious reasons.

I know it looks fancy in pictures, but really, we 'wing it' every year since this room has a high ceiling and it difficult to heat. We need to update it too (wood paneling) and we need lighting. Until then, many, many twinkle lights!

Helleborus niger makes an annual appearance at Christmas, just like it did in 1900. I am so happy that commercial selections like this one are available now at markets.

On Christmas day, we relax. This morning a good friend of mine stopped by with a surprise - a home made chocolate cream pie, which should balance out all of the butter, cheese and beef in our diet. I had nothing to give her, as she was traveling to her sisters house out in the Berkshires, but I quickly threw together an impromptu gift of camellia flowers set into a box with wax paper. She could then have her sister float them in a platter somewhere in their home for a bit of vintage Christmas from the 1800's when camellia's were common in cold, New England greenhouses as a florist flower.

I found a stack of my fathers old home-made Christmas cards starting from the 1940's until the 1970's. Here are a few. (check out the Sputnik in this one!). 

I hope you and your loved ones are having a wonderful Holiday!

I wasn't born yet for this 'Magazine' themed card, but he did design another magazine card in the 1960's - I was featured on the cover of the 'Trains' issue, which is a hint about how I loved model trains (still do secretly!). Yeah, we had a pet falcon too. Didn't everyone?

December 12, 2015

A December Tour of the Greenhouse

We're all so busy during these last few weeks before the Holidays, that it's hard to rake a break from all of the cooking, decorating, shopping and trying to finish up everything at work before the year comes to an end. I look forward to my Christmas break because thankfully, I do get one, with only a couple more days of work until January 4th. I can't wait. Hopefully, it will give me some free time to work on the blog, in the greenhouse, and to just relax and catch up on some reading. I always treat myself to one, good order of antique gardening books, which I can loose myself in.

Here are some bulbs, citrus and camellias which are dominating the greenhouse this warm December in New England.

Massonia jasminiflora, an unusual, collectable genus of low, near-to-the-ground tender bulbs from the cape of South Africa. Just a pair of pustulated leaves, with a cluster of white, tubular blossoms.

Of course, there is also the greenhouse, and work doesn't end in there; We are having some minor plumbing issues - need a new faucet, and a new hose but most of the tasks are just the fun type - repotting, staking tropaeolum vines, which I still am experimenting with in an attempt to find the perfect trellising system for these tiny vines. Some older tubers however are being a bit more aggressive this year, one large 24 inch pot of a Tropaeolum x brachyceras has so many stems emerging that I can't even count them. I wonder if it split or multiplied this year? Right now, it looks as if it could take per the greenhouse! I may just train it onto a tall column of chicken wire.

 Ipheon recurvifolium, a relative of the common blue Ipheion uniform which we sometimes see in the fall, Dutch bulb catalogs. Taxonomists continue to argue if this should be placed into Tristagma, as T. sessile, but it doesn't change that that this bulb has been blooming under glass for 2 months now. Three tiny bulbs was all I could afford of this sweet thing from Uruguay, but maybe it will set seed or divide.

I so love snow, but I have to admit that this unseasonably warm sunshine was healing. I'm definitely thankful for the break as well, since I have not been able to make time to wrap the greenhouse glass inside with bubble wrap - maybe we will be lucky and El Nino will grant us a mild winter?  I am kind-of OK with 60 degrees F in December - my heating bill for the winter so far has been $42. Can't complain about that, but it does make me sound like an old fart - I should be hoping for snow, and a white Christmas like 5 year old Matt somewhere inside of me.

Another bulb which is blooming now, is this Cyrtanthus (Fire Lily). This is a cross who's parentage which we are not sure about, but it's a reliable bloomer each autumn.

Paperwhites have been planted for Christmas. I prefer to grow them in soil, and then top dress the pots in gravel, and later, with moss from the woodlands.

Meyer Lemons do so well in the cold greenhouse. I love how they ripen starting in December, almost the same time that they ripen in California. I have two large trees now, but I may get one more. It seems we can never have enough Meyers for tea, marmalade and for cocktails.

Summer succulents were cut back, and the cuttings are being rooted in seed flats. This helps me save space, and it refreshes the plants, since cuttings perform much nicer when set out again in the spring. Plus, I can quadruple my collection, which is always nice.

Clivia miniata bloom here in March, but the interspecific crosses - those which are crosses between the autumnal blooming species such as C. caulescens and C. gardenia with the spring blooming C. miniata, tend to bloom around Christmas time. This one, which is a cross we made about ten years ago, is sending out 5 spikes.

It's nearly citrus season in the greenhouse, and aside from the Meyer Lemons, we keep adding other citrus like these Kumquats, which are still green. They should ripen in January, and will provide a nice treat when eaten whole, warm from the sun, my favorite way to eat kumquats.

Limequats are a cross, which are already ripening. Terrific in Holiday cocktails, these may not last through my Holiday break! They are tart and sweet, and much juicer than typical kumquats.

My good friend from college,Jeannie, which is Chinese but practically hawaiian now, loves her Calimondin oranges, since most of her friends are from the Philapines. She may be spending Christmas with us, so I hope to impress her with this large variegated Calimondin - it's just beginning to ripen now.

Camellia season has started under glass here in New England. We can't grow camellias outdoors, but under glass, they thrive if it is kept cold. It's been so warm, that I fear that many of mine may bloom early this year.  For now, the late sassanqua fall-blooming ones are ending, and a few Higo types like these singles.
'Yuletide', a classic fall-blooming camellia is effortless in the cold greenhouse. 

I know, it's a blurry shot, but still, so pretty. This is a new single red, but I can't find the label! 

Many of the large Higo camellias are blooming, now, and most will last throughout the winter, especially those which have been planted in the ground in the greenhouse, like this one.

Chrysanthemums continue! A stunning apricot spice colored quill-type.

One of the great benefits of an unseasonably warm winter? I can order bulbs on markdown from the mail order catalogs, in volume. Most are %50 or more off right now, as are peonies. Check your favorites sources - it's not too late as long as they can still ship, and while your ground is still thawed. I plant bulbs until the ground freezes in January in some years.

December 10, 2015


A contemporary photograph of classic chrysanthemums by Japanese artist Tomoko Yoneda, Chrysanthemums, 2011 c-print. First cultivated in China, cultivated forms date as far back as the 15th Century B.C. Today, they remain important in much of Asia and especially in Japan where their appreciation remains unmatched.

This was a very special year for me. As many of you know, this year I grew (and trained) a collection of exhibition and Asian chrysanthemums - a collection which, thanks to many who shared plant material with me including Smith College, and Brian from Kings Mums . I had an opportunity which I could not turn down for an editorial piece for a publication next year, but due to a shortage of plant material ( an indication of how rare these plants actually are) I had almost not been able to get any cuttings started. Thanks to these folks, in addition to Five Form Farm and Mark Hachadorian from The New York Botanical Garden who helped me make some further connections, I was able to complete what ended up being one of my most fascinating special-growing-projects. 

Be prepared, this is a long post, but I wanted to share with you not only my process and results, but some of my influence as well. It's my hope that all of this might inspire even a few of you to consider growing chrysanthemums  next year, thus rediscovering this interesting, beautiful and historical craft and flower which sadly, is close to becoming extinct from culture. Consider joining the American Chrysanthemum Society too, for on their site, you will find great cultural advice. Facebook will connect you with very good growers in the UK too, such as Ivor Mace. Few grow these exhibition chrysanthemums today, and as you will see, for a few practical reasons, but mostly because they require some work to grow well.

A late nineteenth century rare Victorian chromolithographic trade card for Van Houghton Cocoa. once the world's most prominent chocolate maker. These collector trade card featured anything from children to tourism, to even how to grow the 'new' and stylish chrysanthemums .

A Century and a half ago, these larger, looser and more formal chrysanthemums where treasured greenhouse and conservatory plants. Grown outdoors and later in the season, brought indoors where they would bloom under glass for autumnal and winter displays. Yes, the chrysanthemum was considered a Christmas-time flower, blooming from early November until nearly January when set on display indoors.

What helped the chrysanthemum achieve such popularity during the Victorian era is exactly what keeps these plant uncommon in our gardening world today - and those reasons are more practical than anything else. SImply said, time and money. These are not plants for those with a modern home or lifestyle, unless you have an unheated brightly lit room that could act as a conservatory (an unheated bedroom?) for these chrysanthemums are tall, need to be raised in pots, and will not bloom until late in the season.

So, given that few today have a cold greenhouse, let alone a conservatory, growing and even moreso, displaying these plants will be a bit of a challenge. A hundred and fifty years ago, the idea of owning a conservatory or greenhouse, was not uncommon, at least amongst those with the means. Estates often had greenhouses from raising display plants, and most every proper Victorian home came with a conservatory room attached. Like show dogs or race horses, exhibition and Japanese chrysanthemums need growers and a staff to train. Today their culture and thus, their survival is left to the wealthy, a few botanical gardens and the a handful of crazy, obsessed working folk like me who are willing to sacrifice vacations, retirement and a career over raising something which few people ever see anymore. Whatever. 

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December 6, 2015


The winter holiday lights display at your local botanic garden may surprise you. This one, 'Winter Reimagined' at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston MA is worth seeing.

Is your neighborhood like mine? Deficient in Holiday light displays?   There used to be a time the whole family would jump into the station wagon (what's a station wagon mommy?) and drive around looking for impressive holiday displays. Today who really has time for that, besides, am I the only one thinks that there is something just a little weird about secretly looking at other peoples houses? SO, because isn't 1960 anymore, and because those handful of home who really go all out have seemed to become too...well, disco-y, why not make the experience nicer - visit your local botanical garden. Most have now discovered that Holiday light shows are not only good for getting a little extra bump at the fourth quarter gate, but the shows offer an experience found at few other venues in December.

In the Boston area or New England? Need I say more? After last winter, we are ALL for reimagining it!  How's this for a Wednesday - Saturday night event in December with the family? Hot chocolate, snacks in the cafe, and an entire freaking botanic garden illuminated at night. Awesome.

Even in the evening, the brand new 'Garden Within Reach'  at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden which opened this week looked inviting. The temperatures here in the East have certainly been anything but winter-like, but after last winter, I'm not complaining. It made looking at Holiday lights enjoyable (as in wearying-a-t-shirt-enjoyable).

This past weekend we visited our closest Botanical garden - the Tower Hill Botanic Garden about an hour west of Boston, up in the wooded New England hills of rural Boylston, MA - one of those quaint, New England villages which already looks like a Christmas card with a white church and steeple, a town common and a sub shop. I go there a lot, but I have to admit, on this visit (I was just going for a meeting), I was surprised. In a good way. It was breathtakingly transformed into a Christmas wonderland.

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