Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Kewpies and Rose O’Neill

I want to tell you about our wonderful daytrip last Saturday, but first you need some back story. To “get it,” you have to know what Kewpies are, and who Rose O’Neill was.

O’Neill, 1874–1944, was an American-born artist with an unusual childhood—her parents were quite untraditional, and, in a nutshell, she was raised to be “artistic” instead of practical. And an artist she was—at age nineteen she moved by herself to New York. She lived in a convent and soon started getting work as a magazine illustrator.

She was the premier female illustrator of her day, which was the “Golden Age of Illustration.” Her peers included Charles Dana Gibson (you know—who created “the Gibson Girl”), Howard Pyle, James Montgomery Flagg, Arthur Rackham, and more. Working mostly in pen and ink, these commercial illustrators provided the tons of exquisite artwork used in popular magazines between 1880 and World War I.

Not only did she have constant work with Harper’s, Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan, Life, Collier’s, and many more, illustrating their stories and articles, but also she had steady gigs with the advertisers in those same magazines—including Jell-O, the Edison phonograph, and Kodak. She had a fabulous talent for human figures, and particularly facial expressions.

She also did cartoons for Puck, America’s version of the British Punch—which was grown-up satire. This was totally new territory for a woman artist.

So when she started drawing her Kewpies in 1911, she would have plenty of outlets for the illustrations. And the little cupid-like critters caught on like wildfire. A Kewpie, she explained, was “a benevolent elf who did good deeds in a funny way.”

Philanthropists need
A spice of wit
Or else they make
Dull work of it.

Any good deeds done
Too solemn-lee
Are hard on the Do-er
And the Do-ee.

But the Kewps’ idea
If understood,
Is to make you laugh
While they do you good.

They were cheerful and charming, but never saccharine. By 1912 the toy companies were hounding her to make a product that children could hold in their hands, and well, the rest is history. O’Neill made $1.4 million off the little things and all their spinoffs. They were like Mickey Mouse, Snoopy, Smurfs, Precious Moments . . . all that kind of stuff. But they were first. And they appealed to everyone—kids and adults. Kewpie consciousness went worldwide.

But Rose remained a serious artist at heart, and all along continued her illustrations, paintings, sculptures—she even wrote some novels and a book of poetry.

Her lifestyle was bohemian, and she was, as one semi-flattering biographer described her, “pathologically generous.” The things she paid for are legendary. At her home in Westport, Connecticut, she helped out her fellow artists, musicians, writers, and dancers. She let them live in the house with her—for months, sometimes years. Because she didn’t have the time to cook for them in her home, she simply had an “endowed table” at a nearby swanky restaurant, where anyone seated there received dinner for free.

(This photograph was on display at the Bonniebrook home and museum; it shows Rose O'Neill working in her third-floor studio at Bonniebrook.)

So it’s not surprising that she went through her fortune before she died. The Golden Age of Illustration had faded, the Kewpies had become passé, the Great Depression hit, and she ended up in her family’s home in the Ozarks, called Bonniebrook—a home she’d had built for her parents. It’s just a little north of Branson.

She loved the Ozarks, and in her memoirs, her admiration of the hill people is clear. She clearly found them amusing, too—but she acknowledges all along that they no doubt were amused by her as well! She also loved the wildness of the Ozark landscape, the vicissitudes of its weather, the tender spring wildflowers emerging in the hollows.

Rose O’Neill died in 1944 and was buried in a family cemetery just down a little trail from the house. Bonniebrook, her home, was destroyed by fire in 1947. The homesite then deteriorated for nearly three decades. In 1975, the Bonniebrook Historical Society was formed, and they rebuilt the O'Neill home, matching the original as closely as possible. Completed in 1993, the house is a tourist destination as well as a kind of shrine to those who appreciate the Kewpies and their remarkable creator.

So! That’s the back story. Tomorrow, I’ll tell you about our trip to Bonniebrook!

Sources, which I highly recommend:

Rose O’Neill, The Story of Rose O’Neill: An Autobiography, ed. Miriam Formanek-Brunell (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997). (the official site of Rose O’Neill and the Bonniebrook Museum)

Munichburg Update: East Dunklin

Hi, folks! It’s been a few weeks since I last showed you how the Munichburg Corner project is coming along. For those of you just joining me, the Munichburg Corner is a sort of monument on the corner of Dunklin and Jefferson streets here in Jefferson City. This intersection was (and still is) the heart of the Munichburg business district.

“Munichburg” was the name given to the German-immigrant community that developed adjacent to Jefferson City, so it has its own historic “downtown” area. Now, of course, it’s all part of Jeff.

In the past year or so, Steve Rollins of Coleman Appliance, and Larry Kolb, a local developer (his signs are everywhere in this town), took on the project of renovating the south side of the 100 block of East Dunklin, where Milo Walz had his furniture store, where the Bassmann Apartments are, and several historic storefronts that used to house shoe stores, dry goods, restaurants, watering holes.

The storefronts are now ready for lease. Like I say, they have done a beautiful job of renovating them. The upper stories of two of the buildings have been completely renovated, too, and now feature very nice loft apartments. A huge, huge difference from the pathetic tenement-squalor that existed there before.

The transformation has been spectacular—far better than anyone who lives in this neighborhood could hope for. We’re now all hoping that this renovation will be a catalyst for more renovation.

Here are some photos of the renovations in progress. At this point, the focus seems to be on the sidewalk and street in front of the buildings.


Looking west, photo taken on May 12, 2009:

Here is the same basic area, photo taken on January 30, 2010:

Same basic view again, this time photographed on April 26, 2010:

Some of the poor old ironwork they exposed as they explored what what left of the original storefronts. This picture was taken May 12, 2009:

Here is what this storefront looks like now, after renovation (April 26, 2010):

The interior of one of the stores, view toward Dunklin (the front windows are boarded up); May 12, 2009:

The same store, photographed through the front window on April 26, 2010. Look how they stripped and finished the posts! Not to mention the entire gut-rehab . . .

I believe this is the front, main entrance to the Bassmann Apartments, taken on May 12, 2009. They had removed the roof structure at this point (they fixed it up and put it back on):

The same entrance, as of April 26, 2010

Here is the first of two sidewalk views, looking east toward the intersection of Dunklin and Madison. This is from May 12, 2009:

Here is the same basic thing, April 26, 2010. Look at the new sidewalks! And those nice new trees! I had almost gotten used to the ugly, stark stumps they'd let stand during the early parts of the renovation process!

Yes, some of the new trees they planted are dogwoods. Not a native Missouri kind, but dogwoods just the same, and a nice homage to our state floral emblem.

Finally, here are two views at the whole section, taken from across the street. This view is from November 27, 2009:

And this view is from April 26, 2010:


The Munichburg Corner, the monument, is a project of the Old Munichburg Association, the neighborhood association formed to honor and protect this historic area. The monument’s constructed out of stones that were salvaged from the old Nilges Grocery, which was razed this past year (for no reason other than that its owners claimed that the property was more salable without the old building on it). (No, I don’t think it’s sold yet.)

Here are a few photos I took recently to show more of what’s cookin’ at the Munichburg Corner. The stonework is pretty much the same as what I showed in my earlier post, but here are some shots that show the electrical box (the corner will be lit) and the fenceposts across the back.

Soon, they’ll be installing the personalized paving stones that people bought as memorials for loved ones, historic businesses and institutions, and to be recognized as donors. I’ll be getting you pictures of that when it happens.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Johnny Iris

All our flowers have stories. I told you about our peonies last year. Well, now I’m going to tell you about the iris, which are blooming right now.

I really love it that the plants in our yard have histories, just like people do, and their stories intertwine with the stories of humans, the unfurling of history, the changing times.

I grew up overhearing but unfortunately not perfectly memorizing a lot of these stories. To get my facts straight, I recently asked my folks to reiterate the details about the irises in our yard. What I got was a discussion between the two of them as they tried to settle on which iris, and which stories, and who got what from whom.

The stories are already becoming fragmented and fuzzy. But here is what they told me about some of the various heirloom irises that came with our yard.

First, we have a small fleet of tall, light-blue irises in the flower bed over our retaining wall—near the peonies I told you about last year. There are also some of these next to the pillar rose (another million-year-old plant, with which we do battle every year). Right now, they are just starting to send up their tall inflorescences.

No joke, they are tall—the leaves grow to about 30 inches long, and the flower stalks reach 4 feet high.

Here’s what they’ll look like when they bloom.

These iris, my dad explained, had come from the old Bartlett house the next block down Elm Street, just as the peonies had.

Like the peonies, they had been rescued from the old yard before that house, at 318 W. Elm, had been razed. You know gardeners—they can’t let a perfectly good plant get mowed over.

And as I mentioned earlier, the Bartletts are connected to the Mauses, so who knows. Maybe these iris originally came from the old Union Hotel, at what is now the Jefferson Landing State Historic Site.

The other heirloom irises I’m talking about—our “Johnny Irises”— are more of a mystery. It seemed my folks couldn’t quite agree on their provenance.

To complicate matters, we’ve moved them from where Grandma Schroeder had had them during her long tenure in this house. Their “original” location (well, from my perspective) was in the side yard, by the driveway, behind where the old gazebo had once been (my family called it a “lusthaus”—and it stood on the spot where my paternal grandparents were married). (Long story.) We moved them from this location when we put up our privacy fence.

Grandma had also put some of these iris in her official iris bed along the foundation of the next-door house, which she rented out (the house is gone now, though the medley of iris remains).

These particular heirloom irises are early bloomers, solid, dark purple, and relatively short. The leaves only get about a foot high (and max out at about 20 inches), and the flower stalks average about 15 to 17 inches high, with about 20 inches the limit.

The flowers are relatively small, compared to larger, newer varieties, but they are solid dark purple, and plenty per stalk.

I wish I knew what variety they are, but I suspect they might actually be Iris germanica, a natural hybrid that is an old-fashioned standard. (But does that type come in a solid dark purple? Are any iris experts reading this?)

At any rate, they are cheery early bloomers, hardy and profuse, and apparently incredibly old. My dad says that according to his memory, his mom got them from their close neighbors, the Renners—my mom’s parents or grandparents. Somehow (I think because Grandma Schroeder said it!), the story has gotten passed down that they had come from Johnny Renner. Presumably, my mom’s dad. “From along the railroad.”

However, it might have been mom’s grandpa, who was also named John and lived at the same house. If Grandma Schroeder said she got them from “Johnny Renner,” it could have been from either the father or the son. . . . Though I’m not sure my great-grandfather ever went by “Johnny.”

Here’s a picture of my great-grandfather John Christian Renner and my grandfather John Pollock Renner.

Now, while they were talking, my parents also pointed out to me that this swapping of iris rhizomes was probably not something done by the men of the family, but by the women. Hmmm.

Sue and I are still calling them our “Johnny iris.” Maybe I persist in this because iris are my favorite flower, and I want to associate my maternal grandfather with something elegant and beautiful, when I know he carried a lot of pain deep inside him.

. . . There’s another story, too. My mom explains that her family, there at 218 W. Elm, had had a bunch of iris along their back picket fence. These, she said, were bluish purple and not dark; she referred to them as “purple flags.” This color difference throws doubt on the idea that these are the same as our “Johnny iris.”

Anyway, those iris had a story, too. My mom told me that her grandpa, John C. Renner, had brought them home from work one day.

During the end of the 1800s and the first three decades of the 1900s, he worked with the Missouri Pacific Railroad. He had been a line foreman down at Cole Junction, west of town. One day, while he was working, he had seen a yard that had lovely iris. He told their owners, a couple of ladies, that he admired their iris. The women were flattered and shared with him starts of those flowers. And that’s where they came from—John Christian brought them home. So they, too, are a sort of “Johnny iris.”

Here’s a picture of my great-grandfather John C. Renner, working on the railroad. He looks like a nice enough guy, huh? Wouldn’t you share some iris rhizomes with him?

Back then, people relied greatly on their neighbors and friends for new irises and other perennials. It must have been fun to swap starts. They did stuff like that for fun, instead of surfing the Internet. Mom told me they had beautiful white Siberian irises along their sidewalk to the back of the property, and that they also had some early yellow iris that had come from her mom’s mom, Grandma Wilmesherr (who was another inveterate green-thumb type).

Mom also explained that there was a Mrs. Cowley here in Jeff City somewhere, who was a bona fide iris fancier, who had the biggest and best iris garden around. She was the one who got my Grandma Renner fired up about iris, and she undoubtedly shared rhizomes with her.

Here’s a picture of my Grandma and Grandpa Renner, upon their golden wedding anniversary:

And then, of course, good neighbors share plant starts with each other, too. It’s quite possible that my Grandma Schroeder got her stories mixed up and thought that her dark early-bloomers were the ones my Great-Grandpa Renner had carried home from the railroad that day, even though they apparently are not.

So you can see that the provenance of the iris in our yard is no longer ascertainable; the iris traders of the past, men and women, and John C. and John P., are gone, and so are the details of their stories. Still, though, the iris live on, occasionally relocated, but always appreciated, every spring.

Whenever I see hardy, heirloom irises blooming in older neighborhoods, I think of these stories and realize that each clump must have a similar history.

A line foreman in dungarees, doffing his hat politely and telling some ladies that their irises sure are pretty. Two neighbor ladies chat in the backyard and offer each other starts of their favorites. A young couple brings shovels and wheelbarrow to an in-law’s house to rescue plants before the house is town down. A Mrs. So-and-So’s fancy iris garden inspires a modest, Depression-weary housewife. A mother gives her daughter the latest yellow variety.

And they all have bloomed, every year.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Now Open for Business

A short post today!

Here's something new: The Katy Trail State Park Store, on the DNR's Web site--just in time for the twentieth anniversary of the Katy Trail State Park.

(Yes, that's a link! Click on it.)

At this point, it's mainly logoed tee's and sweatshirts, mugs and steins, aprons and totebags, but something tells me this is just the beginning.

And even though the items so far are only about the Katy Trail and Missouri State Parks in general, there might be a lit-tle room for expansion into other popular state parks.

They're probably going to monitor how this stuff sells, and decide on expansion based on that. Personally, I think a Prairie State Park coffee mug, with a lovely panoramic photograph covering the whole thing, would be fabulous.

But maybe that's just me.

Anyway, check it out. If you and your friends are fans of the Katy Trail, this might be just the ticket for a quick gift! And a way to show your support of our natural resources, at a time when the powers-that-be are looking to cut every budget but their own salaries . . .

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Prairies Are in My Genetics

I’m lucky beyond all reason, because the love of prairies runs in my family. My Grandma Schroeder, a loyal garden clubber and enthusiastic horticulturalist, was a charter member of the Missouri Prairie Foundation (MPF), and as far as I know, she always had prairie species such as purple coneflowers in the flowerbed—and yes, they’re still there. If you want to see them, just drive by on Broadway in midsummer.

Grandma used to gush on about the prairies and how beautiful they are, “natural flower gardens,” she’d say. To give you an idea about how she felt toward the prairie, here’s how she’d pronounce the word: “pHRARE-ie!” You could hear the h when she said it. Indeed, the sun-drenched rolling landscape of waving grasses and dancing wildflowers was a romantic, almost overwhelming place for her.

My dad and uncles carry on the interest—my dad’s a geographer who in the 1970s and early 1980s did the intensive and immensely tedious work of turning zillions of early surveyors’ handwritten notes into a precise map of the presettlement prairies of Missouri. Land managers and conservationists are constantly referring to this map. It tells them, for instance, about the ecological history of a particular parcel of land: Was it prairie before white settlement, fire suppression, and the plow? Or was it forest?

The MPF awarded him Prairie Preservationist of the Year in 1982 for his work. And he has analyzed, mapped, and cared for Missouri landscapes throughout his career, even to 2002, when he cowrote the Atlas of Missouri Ecoregions, another invaluable tool for conservationists and land managers.

My Uncle Richard’s career was with the Conservation Department. He was a conservation agent who tirelessly interpreted the landscape and its history to, well, everyone, from kids in classes to good ol’ boys in cafés to hunters in the field. He used to don historical garb and play the part of “drover” during the MPF’s annual Prairie Day event. As a law enforcement officer charged with enforcing conservation law, he quite literally protected Missouri’s landscapes from poachers and their ilk. Both he and my dad have long been associated with the MPF, too.

My Uncle Tom has also worked hard for the environment, and today he deals with land-use issues in the West. And those of us in the next generation—me, my brother, and our cousins—continue in our own ways not only to be interested in prairies and the land, but also, often, to work in jobs associated with biology and the environment. With the guidance and enthusiasm of our family, there was hardly any other alternative.

From the time we were little kids, we were crouching down looking at wildflowers in the spring, capturing bugs all summer, learning oaks from maples in the fall, and listing our birdfeeder visitors in the winter. We picked up feathers and naturally had to know what kind of birds they had come from. I took it for granted that everyone did these things.

Looking back, I’m sure that my mom and dad planned our various outings to some degree, but at the time it just seemed like something that is a basic part of life—to go out hiking on a weekend afternoon.

And so today—the medical and insurance industries be damned—for me, going outdoors into nature, whether to the prairie or a forest, on a hiking trail or just busting through the woods, is my best medicine, my method of getting away from it all and yet somehow getting in touch with everything that truly matters.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

More Information about Tallgrass Prairies

Interested in learning more about tallgrass prairies? It’s something you really should know about if you live in Missouri. Before the arrival of white settlers, about one-third of this state was prairie land—nearly 15 million acres. Today, less than one-half of 1 percent remains of our state’s native presettlement prairies. The rest has been turned into cropland or “developed” in some other way.

The plants and animals that live (or lived) on our prairies were here for thousands of years before European settlers arrived. It’s a shame, a real tragedy, that so much of our natural legacy has quite literally been “plowed under.” We’ve got to act to keep the rest from disappearing.

Here’s an idea: Like I did several years, ago, make it your project, this year, to adopt a prairie for yourself. Springtime is the perfect time to start. Look at some of the links below and pick a prairie that’s near you. Then go visit it every month or so. Wander around in it. Take notes. Ask questions and look things up. Learn, and cultivate your appreciation for these places. (Trust me, this is much more fun than television, movies, or anything else that appears on a “screen.”)

Here are some good places to start learning about the tallgrass prairie.

General Books

The big classic, which gives you the true soul of the prairie, is John Madson, Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie (1982; reprint, Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2004). This is simply required reading.

A shorter and breezier, more journalistic approach, with a punchier environmental message and more updated information on politics and restoration efforts, is Richard Manning’s manifesto, Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie (New York: Penguin, 1997).

Wildflower Guidebooks

A book that focuses only on species of the tallgrass prairie, and which is most helpful if you’re exploring grasslands from Manitoba south to Oklahoma and Nebraska east to Indiana and even parts of Ohio and Kentucky, is Doug Ladd and Frank Oberle’s Tallgrass Prairie Wildflowers (2d ed., Guilford, Conn.: Globe Pequot, 2005).

Perhaps an overall handier book for you, if you’re in Missouri, is the Conservation Department’s best-selling Missouri Wildflowers, by Edgar Denison, now in its sixth edition. It’s available for a measly $12 from the MDC, and it covers hundreds of species commonly found throughout the state, including the prairies, Ozarks, roadsides, Bootheel swamps, and so on. This book belongs on every Missourian’s bookshelf, or, better, glove compartment or knapsack.

Organizations and State Agencies

I also encourage you to check into the Missouri Prairie Foundation, a group that includes many specialists, but also nature lovers like you and me. They work to save what’s left of our state’s native prairies, by acquiring prairies. They also focus on management, education, and research. Look at their Web site to see their list of upcoming events—some of these, even the “work days,” look extremely fun! And joining the foundation helps more than the prairies—it’s good for your soul.

A group that’s endlessly interested in plants (which means it has a great interest in prairies) is the Missouri Native Plant Society. There are several chapters in the state, and there’s a good chance one is near you. In addition to the statewide meetings and activities, the local chapters tend to have a lot of fun activities: Field trips led by experts, native plant sales, interesting speakers on a wide array of topics, habitat restoration, workshops, and more. Annual dues is only, like, $15 or $20, and you will learn a lot as a member.

The Web sites of the Missouri Department of Conservation and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources are also good places to get information about the prairies of Missouri—where the public prairies are located, how the various prairie species are faring, how to create and maintain your own patch of prairie, and so on. Together, the DNR and MDC are charged with caring for the state’s prairie resources, the land and the organisms that live there.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Friendly Prairie and Paint Brush Prairie

Hi there! We had another nice little impromptu adventure Sunday, late afternoon. After Sue got home from a meeting in Columbia, we relaxed for a while in the backyard, enjoying ourselves, the birds, and some iced mint tea, but soon decided on a little road trip. Cameras included!

We headed west, young man! We drove to one of our favorite Central Missouri destinations, for when we want to get away from it all: Sedalia. Specifically, the prairies south of it.

It’s about an hour’s drive on Highway 50 from Jeff to Sedalia (or “Sedville,” as we like to call it, which apparently was the town’s first name, before they landed on the more euphonious “-alia” ending, so trendy in the middle 1800s).

The two prairies we usually visit are both about nine miles south of Sedalia on Highway 65. Both are off of Manila Road—look at my links for maps, or you can just rely on the brown Conservation Area signs right before the turn-off onto this gravel road.

The smaller of the two prairies is about 1.5 miles to the west: Friendly Prairie Conservation Area. It’s forty acres of genuine unplowed remnant prairie, owned by the Missouri Prairie Foundation (MPF), and jointly managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC).

Get this! Botanists have identified more than 260 species of plants on this forty acres. This is biodiversity in action; think of the zillions of interactions of plants, insects, herbivores, insectivores, fungi, saprophytes, parasites, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals!

Compare that to forty acres of a crop plant, say, corn. Monoculture. The entire, vibrant, diverse community is gone; all that’s left are bugs that care about corn, and the specific birds and mammals that care about those bugs and/or corn, and which can survive despite the annual plowings and the pesticides humans apply.


Okay, and the second prairie we visited was Paint Brush Prairie Conservation Area, right off the east side of Highway 65. It’s got 314 acres, more than two hundred plant species, and is owned by the MDC. It’s notable for being a home to some federally endangered species, such as Mead’s milkweed.

Greater prairie-chickens live there, too, and if you want to see them, you better hurry, because there probably won’t be any of them left in our state after another twenty years or so.

There was a sign at the parking area telling hunters not to shoot them. The sign said something like, “Learn how to tell a bobwhite from a prairie-chicken. Prairie-chickens are BIG.” (Sometimes I think that if people are that oafish and dumb, maybe we don’t deserve to live in a world blessed by prairie-chickens.)

While we were there, we didn’t see any prairie-chickens. But we did see some Henslow’s sparrows. They, too, are declining—like the prairie-chickens, they are literally losing ground.

Other birds we saw on this trip, seen on fenceposts and nearby farms, included a loggerhead shrike (a nifty-cool-gee-whiz kind of bird—look it up) and several scissor-tailed flycatchers (which simply take my breath away).

Honestly, for a natural history geek like me, the prairie is a place to make discoveries! I only need to walk a few steps, and boom! Another cool plant to crouch down and inspect.

This time of year, the prairie is just starting to green up beneath last season’s layer of golden stalks. The wildflowers are getting started. Right now is the time for all the shortest of plants to bloom and have their heyday, because the tallgrass prairie species like big bluestem, which easily reaches six or seven feet tall, quickly outpace things like . . . little violets.

Indeed, we spied violets out there on the prairie! Arrow-leaved violets, Viola sagittata, to be precise, though the diagnostic leaves were hard to see on account of last year’s dried grasses the plants have to poke through.

Other low-growing plants in bloom included wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana), pussy toes (an Antennaria species), and even small bluets (Houstonia pusilla). There was lots of false garlic (Nothoscordum bivalve) blooming, too, and those tiny lilies are short and delicate—you don’t see those from the road!

Yellow star grass (Hypoxis hirsuta) was spreading its six bright yellow tepals, but it didn’t seem very abundant. Maybe it’s just getting started.

Another plant that seemed to be just getting warmed up was the iconic prairie plant Indian paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea).

It is remarkable how you can look clear out across an early spring prairie, and it seems all dry and tan, but when you start wandering through it, out pop these incredibly bright specimens.

By the way, remember when I told you how, in about 2000, the botanists had “blown up” the family Scrophulariaceae? Well, Indian paintbrush is one of the species that was affected by this change. Most of your plant guidebooks published before 2000 will tell you that it’s in the scrophs family, along with penstemons, figworts, and snapdragons, but now Indian paintbrush has been placed in the Orobanchaceae (orro-ban-KAY-see-ee). (See, I’m trying to help you make sense of these terms.)

The Orobanchaceae is often referred to as the “broomrape” family, which sounds pretty horrible, until you understand the etymology: Rape, or rapum, is an ancient word for a turnip or some other tuber, and broom’s “other” meaning refers to a shrubby plant in the pea family. So broomrape actually means “broom tuber” and refers to the way these plants grow swollen underground structures connected to a host plant’s roots.

See, a common highlight to many plants in the broomrape family is that most are at least partially parasitic to other plants. Their roots connect with the roots of other plants—such as a big, vigorous sunflower or birch tree nearby—and steal nutrients from that host.

And lo and behold, we found several specimens of another member of this same family, wood betony, sometimes called “lousewort” for the now-laughable belief that this plant could give cattle lice. Its official name is Pedicularis canadensis.

(If you’re reading this and you’re in the Rockies, Cascades, High Sierra, Canada, and parts north, you might be familiar with a noteworthy relative, P. groenlandica, “elephant’s head,” whose flowers look like tiny pink elephant heads. Google it if you don’t believe me. I kid you not.)

Anyway, wood betony is one of those plants that intrigues even folks who are really more interested in animals. The foliage is remarkably fernlike and dissected. Attractive.

The inflorescences (flower stalks) are marvels of symmetry and detail. Each conical flowerhead grows in a compact swirl. It’s all so orderly yet chaotic in a way. It looks more like something you might find stuck to a coral reef than growing out in the middle of some sunny grassland.

Finally, I want to leave you with a picture of another plant that’s currently blooming well on both prairies: Hoary puccoon, Lithospermum canescens. It’s in the borage family, and if you look beyond the pretty petals at the stalk they’re growing on, you can kinda see the “fiddlehead” growth pattern of the flowers (this is technically called a “scorpioid cyme”) that is characteristic of this family.

So the wildflower season is just getting started down there, south of “Sedville,” and I’m encouraging you, too, to wander through the grasses and see what kind of botanizing you can do. Bring a wildflower guidebook. And bring your camera!

By the way, there’s a patch of trout lilies, or dogtooth “violets,” on one of these prairies that will probably be blooming within this next week. But I’m not telling you where. You’ll have go to discover them yourself. Heh-heh-heh!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Sorry, No Pictures of This Morning’s Omelette

Hey, we finally got to sleep late this morning, and that’s saying something about this past week, considering we’re both freelancers!

I’ve recently learned how to make a “real” omelette, a rich, smooth, French one, just like “Julia” made. In fact, the whole thing is thanks to Julia Child, who explains basic omelette making in a three-DVD set of The French Chef with Julia Child, available from PBS.

It’s truly remarkable how a talented and enthusiastic teacher can turn something notoriously difficult into a fun adventure, and seemingly simple. We all know that one of Julia Child’s great strengths as a cooking educator was her relaxed attitude toward, well, failure. You can always salvage the dish, or try it again. And you can always learn from your mistakes.

Anyway, in the third DVD of this set is “The Omelette Show,” wherein Child demonstrates (repeatedly, and with variations) how to make twenty-second omelettes. This is real cooking instruction.

The ingredients are ridiculously simple: three eggs, a tablespoon of butter, a teaspoon of water, and salt and pepper. The skillet you use is important, as is high heat. A spatula should be on hand, though you might not need it, and the plates should be prewarmed.

If you’re using fillings that need to be cooked (mushrooms, bacon, ham, vegetables, etc.), then you need to have cooked them ahead.

It literally only takes about 20 seconds. Incredible.

I won’t go into how I used to make omelettes. I used to try to fold them over with the spatula, but with Child’s traditional, plenty-of-butter technique, you can actually create the whole omelette without using a spatula at all. After the initial set of about four or five seconds, you just shake the pan—circular motions, then jerking it to get it to start flipping.

If you want the full instructions, you need to see the DVD—the lessons in “The Omelette Show” by itself are well worth the price of the DVD, but there are seventeen more episodes in the set that are just as worthy.

So this morning I chopped up some fruit—strawberries, and orange, a kiwi—and warmed up some slices of good French bread. (Yes, you can reclaim bread that isn’t perfectly fresh by wrapping it in foil and heating it in an oven or toaster oven.)

And we’re still working on our Starbuck’s special holiday blend, which is so good. Why isn’t it available all year long?

You have to have everything else in your meal done and ready to serve, first, because the omelettes only take twenty seconds and should be eaten immediately, so there you go.

The omelettes du jour were omelettes aux fines herbes, which means they’re made with chopped fresh herbs. I grabbed a mélange from my nascent spring herb garden—some cilantro, dill, parsley, oregano, and garlic chives—and chopped them fine. I added them to the egg mixture, so they were incorporated into the eggs. Adding them this way warms the herbs just enough to infuse the eggs with their flavor, but not so much they become discolored or lose their fresh, exciting taste.

Then, just before the final fold onto the plate, I sprinkled some crumbled feta cheese into them.

It was all very decadent, with the butter and all, and with more real butter for the warm bread, but then we’ve been eating relatively austere oat bran muffins for breakfast all week long.

And no, there are no photographs of our breakfast this morning, because you just don’t mess around taking pictures when a fresh, hot, creamy, fresh-herb-and-feta omelette is steaming on the plate before you. You just eat it.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Simple and Tasty

You could file this recipe under “college food,” because that’s when I first started making it. A friend passed it along to me, and I’ve never found much reason to change it.

Here’s why it’s remained a favorite all these years: It tastes good. It’s easy to make. It doesn’t need a lot of ingredients; you can improvise. It’s a one-dish dinner, it makes a lot, and it’s pretty delicious even as leftovers. Hey, it’s better than your average college-cookin’ slumgullion!

Finally, it’s relatively healthy and light. It served me well in college, and it’s still something I return to when we need to eat out of the pantry and the freezer.

It’s especially good on a day like today, when the temperature’s dropped, the skies are gray, and you're too busy to cook much. It can be a “warming” dish, so to speak. And the accompaniment? Try simple butter bread.

The key ingredient is a can of Ro-Tel Original Diced Tomatoes and Green Chilies. Which is kind of high in sodium by itself, but when spread over the rest of the dish, it evens out.

The Ro-Tel and Rice Recipe

1–2 tbs. olive oil
2 butterfly pork chops, trimmed of fat and sliced thin as for stir-frying
1 tsp. dried crushed oregano
1 cup plain long-grain white rice
1 10-oz. can Ro-Tel Original Diced Tomatoes and Green Chilies
1½ cups fresh cauliflower florets, in approx. 2-inch chunks
1 cup of fresh green beans, cleaned and trimmed (or a can of green beans)

In a 12-inch nonstick skillet with a good-fitting lid, brown pork chops in olive oil and season with the oregano. Add the rice and stir so it gets coated with the oil. Then add the whole can of Ro-Tel, plus another can and a half of water. Stir lightly to combine. Turn up the heat; when it gets close to boiling, spread the cauliflower and green beans over the top. When it comes to a boil, cover and turn heat to low. Simmer for another 20 minutes or so.

Bonus Trivia!
In the 1940s, Carl Roettele started his canned-tomato-and-chili company in Elsa, Texas. He knew that folks would be challenged by the spelling and pronunciation of his name, so he simplified the spelling to “RO*TEL.”

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Things You Can Pretty Much Count On

Tax day. You never completely know, until the final calculations are done, whether you’ll get a refund or will owe.

And you can’t count on much with the weather around here, or a lot of other things.

It’s good, then, to look around and see some things that are more or less reliable.

This, for instance, will smell heavenly:

This will make me sneeze and my eyes itch:

This, in our yard, will make a “rock peach.” (Gotta love it.)

This will attract hummingbirds:

This will beget black walnuts:

And this will draw ants, and then bloom pretty white right around Memorial Day.