The Green Faerie

In a Smoke-Filled Café . . . 

What you are about to read might have been improved upon if I had been writing with la fée verde (the green fairy) looking over my shoulder. Or better yet, if I also was writing from a smoke-filled cafe in Paris.

The Green Faerie, Viktor Oliva

The Green Faerie, Viktor Oliva

Or even better, from a smoke filled cafe at the turn of the 19th century, hanging out with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, and Lord Byron.

There’s a certain mystique with drinking absinthe, la fée verde, a distilled spirit concocted from various herbs which might include tansy, fennel, green anise, and bee balm. The most important ingredient is, of course, Artemisia absinthe, absinthe, the plant. Absinthe is one of many plants in the genus Artemisia, commonly referred to as mugwarts or wormwoods.

Full disclosure: I generally am not fond of this genus because it’s one of my worst weeds. My artemisiac nemesis is not absinthe, though, but common wormwood (Artimesia vulgaris). This ugly, perennial weed perennially keeps poking up through the leafy mulch beneath a clump of delphiniums in one corner fo the garden.

Whence the Green Faerie?

But back to absinthe, the drink. It’s been accused of being an addictive, psychoactive drug and hallucinogen, which led to its being banned in the early 1900s almost everywhere except the United Kingdom.

Artemisias all contain potent chemicals, and the chemical of potency of absinthe is thujone. Not that absinthe has cornered the market on thujone; it’s also found in some junipers, tansy, some mints, and arborvitae, whose generic name is Thuja.

As it turns out, the concentration of thujone in absinthe is too low to invite visits from the green fairy.

The Absinthe Drinker, Picasso

The Absinthe Drinker, Picasso

That invite comes from alcohol, 45-74%, that’s responsible — duh — for absinthe’s bringing on hallucinations and other psychological changes. And its addictiveness.

Still, thujone can be toxic, which is perhaps why absinthe sold in the U.S. must contain less than 10 ppm thujone. Which has led to some rumors that American absinthe isn’t “real” absinthe. Not true because, first of all, absinthe is not a well defined alcoholic drink. And secondly, less thujone does not mean less absinthe, the plant, in the bottle. Particular absinthe plants vary in their thujone concentration. And thirdly, thujone concentration in the absinthe poured out of the bottle will vary also with length and method of storage; it decomposes over time.

Most artemisias are very bitter, so enjoying absinthe, the drink, is an acquired taste. (I’ve never tasted absinthe, nor, with my aversion to bitter flavors, do I intend to.) And even then, absinthe is not a liquid anyone would drink straight up.

The Absinthe Drinker, Degas

The Absinthe Drinker, Degas

All of the various methods of imbibing it involve sweetening it with sugar and diluting it with some iced water. Well, perhaps not all methods in this era of craft cocktails.

Absinthe, the plant, is not hard to grow. It’s a perennial that’s native to Europe but has naturalized in the U.S. and Canada. (Uh oh.) It enjoys a dry, fertile soil, especially one rich in nitrogen. Artemisias generally have relatively inconspicuous flowers but sometimes attractive, hoary leaves; absinthe’s leaves are gray-green on their upper sides and white on their undersides. Dusty Miller is the showiest of the artemisias, with powdery, white leaves.

My experience with common wormwood makes the ease of propagating absinthe somewhat frightening. Cuttings root readily and the plant self-seeds generously.

One Artemesia I Do Like

Now that I think of it, there is one artemesia that I do especially like, despite its potential weedy nature. Sweet Annie (A. annua) is a self-seeding annual whose tiny seeds sprout every spring to grow into 2 to 5 foot tall sweetly fragrant plants. Sweet AnnieThe sweet, resiny aroma is retained in air-dried plants for years. I keep a clump hanging upside down near my front door so that the aroma can waft into the air when the door is opened or someone brushes past.

When l’heure verte (the green hour, as 5 pm was called among absinthe enthusiasts (or addicts) in late 19th century France arrives, you won’t see me sitting at a table peering down into my glass of absinthe. The only artemesia that I might imbibe would be Sweet Annie, not because it tastes good. If I ever contract malaria, Sweet Annie is the ticket. It’s a traditional Chinese treatment and has in recent decades been incorporated into modern treatments also. So that’s another reason to like Sweet Annie, but not absinthe.

Taste And Aroma

Old Peaches

The peaches on a friend’s tree were small, marred with bacterial spot disease, and still showed some green on their skins. So burdened with fruits was the tree that it had burst asunder from their weight, splitting one of the main limbs.

Still, the friend insisted that the peaches tasted good. As further enticement, the tree had a history, having sprouted on the grounds of a nearby 18th century house that had an orchard. The tree was evidently cold hardy also. So I twisted one fruit off and took a bite. In spite of being not quite ripe, the fruit was delicious, quite sweet — as is usual with white peaches such as these — and with an old-fashioned, intensely peachy flavor.Heirloom peach

I took up the offer to take a small bag of them home with me. And not only for eating. My plan is to save the seeds from many of them for planting and for making into new trees that should taste very much like their mother tree. Peaches are self-pollinating, in contrast to apples and pears, so progeny often resemble their parent. Peaches also bear within just a few years from seed so I could weed out some or all plants whose fruits were not up to snuff.

The first step to a peachy future was to crack open the shells surrounding each seed, and then drop the seeds into a plastic bag filled with potting soil on the workbench in my unheated garage.

In their natural environment, peach seeds ripen in summer but wouldn’t sprout until spring. If they sprouted immediately, winter cold would likely kill the very young seedling. Hormones within the seeds sense when winter has ended by the number of accumulated hours at cool (30 to 45°F) temperatures.

The number of hours depends on the genetics of the tree but for most hardy fruit trees, about 1000 hours, or about a month and a half, does the trick. And I do intend to trick them, to give them an early start on the season, indoors. The more they grow each season, the sooner they bear.

I’d like them to sprout in early March, so will put the bag of potting soil and peach seeds into my refrigerator in early December. Once they sprout, I’ll pot a few up and, once they emerge from the soil, move them to the sunniest window or the greenhouse, then, when weather warms, outdoors.

It’s a Weed, It’s a Garden Plant, It’s a . . .

Some plants straddle the fence of being defined as a weed. Case in point is Sweet Annie. On looks alone, the plant could easily fall to one side of the fence, qualifying only as a weed. It’s nothing more than a nondescript, upright plant — until it bends over from it’s own weight — that’s green, clumps of them sprouting all over the place. Despite being a member of the Daisy Family of plants, Sweet Annie’s flowers are small, pale green, and not notable.Sweet Annie

I, and many other gardeners, grow the plant for its rich, resiny aroma. Bundles of them are for sale from many farms at Maine’s Common Ground Fair; it’s the signature aroma there. So I also grow Sweet Annie to bring me back, olfactorily speaking, to my good times at the Fair.

As a sometime weed, Sweet Annie is, of course, easy to grow. I first planted it 3 years ago, sowing it, unnecessarily, in pots for later transplanting. No need to plant it again; it self-seeds enthusiastically, my job now being to contain that enthusiasm. 

Amazing how that plant can move around. It managed to find its way from the back of my house to the front of my house without going around either side. It manages to sprout in spaces between the bricks of my terraces holding the thinnest slivers of soil.

Sweet Annie is sometimes cultivated as a row crop for harvest and extraction of artemisinin, which has some medicinal uses. As for me, I just weed out plants in the wrong place (as defines a weed), and harvest a few bunches to hang near the door for an olfactory treat as I brush past it.  


Annie Helps the World

    Sweet Annie (Artemisia annua): such an unassuming name. Likewise for the plant itself, with its ferny, but not distinctive, foliage, and flowers not worth a second look. You’d hardly peg this plant as a player in global health and global warming.
    But look within the leaves and you find artemisin, a biologically active compound that has contributed to Sweet Annie’s figuring into Chinese herbal medicine for the past 2,000 years. Artemisin was isolated from the plant in the 1970s by Chinese scientist Tu Youyou, for which she  shared a Nobel Prize. Sweet Annie’s uses in Chinese medicine — qinghao in Chinese — run from treating asthma to skin diseases to stomach pain to rheumatism to  . . . but not all such claims have been experimentally verified (and Sweet Annie could have bad side effects).Sweet Annie
    The most widespread and thoroughly documented use of Sweet Annie is, in combination with other drugs, in the treatment of malaria, a disease responsible for over a half a million deaths per year. One roadblock to the more widespread use of artemisin is its cost.
    Which brings us to global warming, or, more specifically, the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, which is one cause for global warming. Carbon dioxide, for all its bad press, is one ingredient in the recipe for photosynthesis. The carbon in carbon dioxide is what becomes the organic carbon in a plant’s cellulose, starches, sugars, fats, proteins, and other essential building blocks that store energy and build a plant’s physical structure. More carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could translate into greater growth, although increased temperatures from global warming could have the opposite effect.
    In the case of Sweet Annie, research by the USDA indicates that a more carbon dioxide rich future would lead to more growth, which translates to greater yields of Sweet Annie and more artemisin for treating malaria.

Annie, for Sweet Aroma

    My two Sweet Annie plants aren’t destined for drug production. They’re for olfactory pleasure. Tied into bundles and hung in the mudroom alongside the front door, the bundle will effuse its camphor-sweet aroma each time a breeze or a person brushes past.

Annie’s a Weed?!

    Sweet Annie is a self-seeding annual that, like some other members of the wormwood family, can become weedy. Which makes it perhaps unwise that I planted it where I did.
 Sweet Annie iin terrace garden   Garden areas closest to my front, back, and side doors are the ones that get most care and that I look at the most; these considerations guide my plantings, both for aesthetics and for pragmatism. Things get wilder as you move further from the house, the most dramatic example of which is the meadow that begins where the lawn ends.
    So it was perhaps foolish to plant Sweet Annie, which is not much to look at and could become weedy, in the bed next to my terrace. Having the fragrant leaves close by was one rationale. But for some reason, that one bed is cared for the least, perhaps because or perhaps consequently it has become a dumping ground for miscellaneous plants for which there are no obvious homes.
    That bed is also home to chamomile. Again, one rationale was to have it nearby so I could conveniently pluck flower heads for tea — which I do. But really, no other home presented itself. I planted chamomile there many years ago and got scared of its seeding all over the place. With diligence, I was able to get rid of it — until this year, when I replanted it. I’ve been warned (by myself).
    I even planted mint in that bed, again, to have it handy for tea, but knowing how it could, and once did, knit the soil, just beneath the surface, with its lacework of stolons from which sprouts new stems. I did have the foresight, this time, to contain the roots by planting the mint into a chimney flue sunk into the ground. Constant attention will be needed to prevent the stems from flopping down over the sides of the flue to root — which they do very easily — where they touch soil.
    From today’s perspective, a handy little garden overflowing with sweet aromas is appealing. I’ll see how I feel next year at this time.

Sweet Ice Grapes

    Hanging from vines on the arbor over the terrace are remnants of the season’s grapes and the white paper bags that protected some of the bunches. I found a few bags still with unharvested clusters, frozen but still intact. “Ice grapes,” the precursor to “ice wine,” except that these are eating grapes. They were smooth, sweet, and flavorful.

Grapes, frozen but delicious

Grapes, frozen but delicious

I Find Common Ground, and More, in Maine

 My Favorite Country Faire

   Two dogs, one cat, six ducks, and one chicken are trusted to the care of friends; sourdough starter is re-fed and chilled; plants are on their own. It’s hard to leave the farmden. But this trip — to Maine — is well worth it.
    Walking through the entrance gate to the Common Ground Fair in Unity, Maine, my senses are overloaded with color and fragrance. Along either side of the entrance path are boxes piled high with bright orange carrots, spilling over with the blue green leaves of kale, or packed full with yellow or red beets. Also flowers, herbs, and cheeses. Pervasive is the resiny fragrance of sweet Annie (Artemesia annua), which for some reason seems to be perennially the signature herb of the fair. Buckets are filled with stems for sale; knapsacks sprout bunches of purchased sweet Annie from their zippered pockets; and girls and women sport woven sweet Annie headdresses. From the shade of tents on either side of the walkway, Maine’s myriad organic farmers are hawking their wares.Crafts at Common Ground Fair
    Sweet Annie isn’t the only fragrant herb at the fair. In the tent devoted to some of Maine’s political groups, buds of marijuana — medical marijuana — are available for olfactory sampling.
    Central to the Common Ground Fair, like all country fairs, are agriculture and rural skills. A team of oxen strain under the weight of logs they are pulling. Border collies bead down on sheep, demonstrating their herding skills and the training skills of their owners. A bearded, young man swings an adze as the log on which he is standing takes on a square cross-section. Another bearded man helps a young boy pull a bow back and forth until smoke curls up from the round, maple peg rubbing the round notch in a maple board: fire-making without matches.
 Common Ground Fair, fire making   In other tents, these with closed, darkened flaps, someone standing near a flap holds the attention of a seated crowd in the darkened interior. No, not a cult gathering. Throughout each of the three fair days, workshops are offered in such diverse topics as “Farm-Raised Kids on an Organic Farm in Maine,” “Backyard Grain Growing,” “Advanced Seed Saving,” “Growing Grass-fed Vegetables,” and “Weedless Gardening.”  (The last was one of the three workshops I held at the fair.)
Common Ground Fair, barn dance

Old-Fashioned Fun

    Common Ground Fair is “retro,” an improvement on country and county fairs, in doing less. No amplified voices of barkers try to woo you in to win a stuffed gorilla. In fact, a three-year-old boy trying to pound an oversize sledge hammer onto a pad as a test of strength, with a lot of help from his mom, was the only strength or skill test I saw — and no prizes offered.
    No rides either. No fun? Given the happy whoops of the slew of children running up a grassy slope with flattened cardboard boxes, then jumping on them with a running start to slide down, I’s say they were having fun.Common Ground Fair, grass slide
    Just about everything at the fair is made or grown in Maine. (Used to be that everything had to be grown in Maine, which put coffee drinkers on edge. Maine-roasted coffee is now available at the fair.)
    Twilight is wondrous at the fair, mostly because you can see the twilight. No strings of electric lights bring the fair to new life at the end of the day. Most people leave. The only light, besides the setting sun, is the soft, yellow glow of lanterns or campfires. The fragrance of the campfires and the sounds of campers’ home-grown music around the campfires are the parting senses as I leave the fair.     

My Favorite Garden Designer

    Beatrix Farrand is a name that most people do not recognize, although she was a woman who created some of the most beautiful landscapes and gardens in the world. And she did so at a time — in the early 20th century — when such professions were not open to women. Much of her landscape work was in Maine, on Mt. Desert Island, as was her home, Reef Point.
    Reef Point was Beatrix’s family estate; under her care, it evolved into a horticultural heaven, with garden areas woven together by grassy paths. Spruce trees created microclimates that allowed azaleas and other plants not usually adapted to cold of Maine winters and the buffeting by ocean winds to survive and thrive. The gardens, the experimental plantings, and their descriptions in Farrand’s Reef Point Bulletins were all part of her vision of Reef Point as an educational enterprise.
 Garland Farm   Alas, Reef Point Gardens did not fulfill the vision: wildfire and lack of funding forced Ms. Farrand to down-size. She dismantled Reef Point and moved to an addition she had built attached the home of Lewis and Amy Garland, the superintendent and chief horticulturalist of her Reef Point Estate.
    Garland Farm — my last stop on my visit to Maine — was Beatrix Farrand’s final design, incorporating many architectural elements and plants salvaged from Reef Point. In contrast to Ms. Farrand’s other projects, which included designs for Princeton University, Rockefellers’ Seal Harbor estate, The Mount (home of Edith Wharton, Beatrix’s aunt), Dumbarton Oaks (my favorite of all gardens), and the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, Garland Farm is a small garden.
    Looking out the French doors of Ms. Farrand’s study at Garland Farm onto the small parterre garden, your eyes are carried along a path to a Buddhist statue. Along that path are beds home to lavender, heathers, and other plants with year ‘round effect. The whole area is defined by a low balustrade, setting it off from the view of the meadow and grove of Norway spruce trees in the distance. This garden incorporates the same design principles — axis, year ‘round effect, structure, and integration of views — on an intimate scale, that were so successful in Beatrix Farrand’s larger projects.