Saturday, April 21, 2012


I've thought of a hundred different ways to describe Lotusland, but I've come up with nothing that captures the experience of the garden. The only thing I can say is that someday, I hope to create a garden with a fraction of the wonder, personality, and humor this garden evokes.

Rhubarb Elderflower Fool
This is my own recipe, composed this morning when I wanted to create something special and evocative of a place. The elderberries are in early bloom in the arroyo, and the rhubarb plants I've babied along for a few years in the front yard have finally taken off. Bright with rhubarb but haunted by that floral-muscat scent of elderflowers, this is a dessert I'm proud of.

You will need:
8 ounces rhubarb (two small stalks)
juice of one Meyer lemon
3/4 cup sugar
3 large just-opened elderflower heads
plenty of just-sweet whipped cream
a handful of ameretti (bitter almond Italian cookies)

To make the fool:
Place all the rhubarb, lemon juice, sugar, and flower heads in a saucepan, cover the pot loosely, and simmer for a half an hour, until the rhubarb is soft. Remove from heat. Carefully remove the elderflower heads with a fork.

Pour the compote—you'll have about a cup—in a jar and place it in the refrigerator to chill.

When you're ready to serve the dessert, divide the chilled compote into four serving cups, add a generous layer of whipped cream, and drop a couple ameretti on top.

Serves four.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

California Without Citrus

Last week, after the tour of the UCR Citrus Collection, my friend Russ of LA Farm Hands and I drove across town to see history. We visited the lone survivor of the two original California Washington navel trees, planted in Riverside in 1873, and progenitor of all navel oranges in California. All of them. If you live in California and have a navel orange in your yard, generations ago, someone took a cutting from this tree or its sister, grafted it onto other rootstock, then did it again and again until finally onto the rootstock that is growing in your yard. You are, in fact, growing this tree, or part of it. Millions of parts of it are spread across the state. If you are eating a navel from California, even if you're across the country, you are eating fruit from this tree. This tree changed California history, and it changed our nation's diet.

In order to keep this ancient tree alive, its caretakers have added new rootstocks through the years. You can see by the strangely rooting trunk: those aren't roots, those are rootstocks planted close to the tree and grafted into the tree. The rootstocks have saved it from the rotten old, original trunk.

This tree has lived for almost 140 years. But now, it may not make it 140 more. It may not even make it two more.

In 2008, scientists discovered the the Asian Citrus Psyllid had broken through California's green curtain and onto her citrus; the psyllid isn't pretty, and though it will damage young growth, it won't kill it. The problem with the Asian Citrus Psyllid making its way to California is what has historically followed the psyllid, the virus known as Citrus Greening or Huanglongbing. The psyllid is the primary carrier of the virus that slowly kills the tree and makes it a source of more infection for more trees. It's incurable. It has destroyed 100,000 acres of Florida citrus, devastated the Brazilian citrus industry, and last week, it was discovered here.

I found this excerpt from "California braces for a deadly stalker of citrus" in today's Los Angeles Times particularly frightening:
Wingtack Wong, who with his siblings owns Temple Garden Center in El Monte, is sadly familiar with huanglongbing. He worked for the agricultural commission in China's Guangzhou province when the disease arrived there in the 1960s. He remembers the commission tried everything from pesticides to experimental cures to stop it, but by the 1980s and early '90s, the disease had traveled slowly north, killing all the citrus.

A wiry man who usually bustles around his sunny nursery answering three questions at once, Wong sat down to speak of huanglongbing.

He recalled a farm famous for "fields and fields of mandarins."

"One yellow leaf tuned into an entire yellow tree, the fruit shriveled up and slowly the rest of the trees turned yellow, and then it was all gone," he said, slouching in his chair.
Dr. Tracy Kahn, the curator of the UCR citrus collection, told us last week that the tree in which the disease was found had multiple grafts, likely smuggled in illegally. The recent news reports the tree was a Meyer lemon with a Chinese pummelo grafted on it. The man who grafted the tree says he received the budwood for the pummelo from a fellow gardener in his church. Though the grafted pummelo may not have been the source of the virus, it likely is. If it is, that means that there is another pummelo (maybe more than one, along with other other trees on which it has been grafted) out there that is sick.

California is worried, rightfully. I'm worried. Dr. Tracy Kahn was worried when she was talking to us, too, but she was also hopeful. She told us careful monitoring can help us catch any other diseased trees quickly, and California has already released a predator for the psyllid that will help keep its population in check; however, she implored us to share information, especially to non-English speakers, and she also forbade us from grafting any citrus budwood, whether we are inside or outside the quarantine area. She reminded us citrus relatives were also carriers, and one that commonly shows up at farmers' markets, Asian markets, and produce swaps has no place in California: curry leaf. (There are no legal sources of curry leaf in California. Everything that is here has been imported and shared illegally.)

So, what do we do?
  • Read this.
  • If you're in the quarantine zone, do not remove any citrus from your property. Do not even put it in the trash. My best suggestion, if you can't eat or preserve it, is to bury it deeply. 
  • Whether or not you're in a quarantine zone, do not graft any other citrus material onto your trees.
  • If you want more citrus trees, make sure you purchase trees that are tagged by the state as free from evidence of psyllid activity and disease.
  • Consider supporting California citrus by removing ornamental citrus relatives from your property; both curry leaf (illegal!) and orange jasmine (lovely!) are great temptresses of the psyllid, and remember, the disease follows the bug.
  • Every time you move from working on one citrus tree to another in your garden or between gardens, even if you think your property is free from virus, sterilize your tools. A quick dip in alcohol will do.
This doesn't have to be the end of California citrus, but to keep it from becoming so will take the effort not only of every citrus researcher and farmer in the state, but every home gardener too.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Citrus Tour

When I was a very little girl, my family lived in Sanger, a small agricultural town in the San Joaquin Valley. Elderly friends of our family had a citrus farm, and from that farm, I remember the giant tadpoles in canal eddies, ancient gnarled branches of olive trees, and the sweet musky scent of rotting citrus fruit. Today, when I walked onto the campus of the UCR's Citrus Collection, that memory hit me profoundly, and I could picture myself, just a few feet tall, climbing around under the canopy of old orange trees as my little feet turned aged fruit to mush. The smell of citrus blossoms, though wonderful, is all over California, but that rotting citrus smell is more specific, and therefore, much more emotionally powerful. It is a good memory.

The Foothill Chapter, my local CRFG chapter, arranged the tour with the collection's curator, Dr. Tracy Kahn. Founded in 1910 and containing multiple specimens of over 1,000 citrus varieties and citrus relatives, the collection is the largest in the world. In screened greenhouses, safe from threat of disease, the collection maintains two of each variety; it contains many edible varieties, but others that are also ornamental, grown for fragrance, medicine, rootstock, or just interest. The diversity in the growth habits was fascinating. The trees and shrubs ranged from tropical and lush to deserty and willowy.

Chinotto Sour Orange, a densely fruiting and foliaged variety.

Flying Dragon, a roostock variety, whose thorny branches twisted malevolently.

Variegated Cara Cara orange. I couldn't capture how beautifully glaucous the foliage was on this plant. This is an ugly picture of a lovely plant.

I fell in love with the fine foliage and weeping habit of this drought tolerant plant, the Australian Desert Lime.

These two rows of navels were both planted in 1990, the left on standard rootstock, the right on dwarfing.
Amazing to me is the fact that all of our edible citrus comes originates from three ancient edibles: citron, pummelo, and mandarin. Every other edible variety is a cross or backcross or mutation of some sort of these three. We were able to taste the diversity of flavors that thousands of years of human cultivation of citrus has rendered as we wandered through the grove.

Dr. Kahn's chart of the grove's plantings.

Indio Mandarinquat: Perfectly uniform fruit, juicy-tangy flesh, and sweet skin. Nice.

A handful of Australian Finger Limes.

The crunchy-tart juice cells of an Australian Finger Lime.

Dr. Kahn cut several Tango mandarins for us to taste. They were exceptionally juicy; we all left the tasting sticky.

The deep coloration of the skin on these Bream Tarocco blood oranges was a hint of the deep burgundy flesh inside, berry-flavored, tart, and juicy.

This, a Bael fruit, is something we didn't taste. It dripped thick mucous after being broken open. In India, the mucous is mixed with water to make a drink with medicinal properties, especially for women.

A Valentine blood orange, pummelo, mandarin cross, one of my favorites of the day. The fruit was balanced in sweet, tart, and juicy, and it glowed like stained glass in the sunlight. It has taken 28 years to get this plant to the point where it may be commercially available.

We tasted other goodies too: perfectly seedless Kishu mandarins, seedless Nordmann kumquats, sweet and acid-free Limettas, an underwhelming Sumo mandarin. I couldn't get pictures of everything, but I did love the opportunity to taste it all. Now, I just have to find space for more trees in my yard.

Consider supporting the collection that protects the world's citrus heritage. You can find out more here.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Salad Burnet

On one of our road trips a few years ago, E and I stopped at Fern Canyon, on the northern California coast. We drove the twisting, rising then steeply dropping dirt road to get to its parking lot, then took the short hike in from there. We passed elk grazing in the sea grasses.

The canyon itself is narrow, steep, and green. The small creek that runs through the canyon is wade-able, the stones at its bottom seem golden in the lime-y light. Because of the canyon's combination of location and narrowness, it sustains a microclimate that mirrors that of prehistory: humid, temperate, and unchanging. As such, the walls are quilted with lacy ferns and mosses. It is beautiful.

My yard is nothing like Fern Canyon. In the years we get rainy seasons, it rains so hard we can hardly see through the sheets of water. And when it isn't raining during the winter, it is windy, so windy that this year we lost power for four days. Then there is summer. No rain. None. We go nine months without any rain, and some days get so hot by the afternoon when the fire season starts, it feels like all the air is burning. Yet, in my garden, something grows that looks like it came straight from Fern Canyon.

It is salad burnet, Sanguisorba minor. It's a pretty perennial that, with a little maintenance, looks good all year. The leaves are toothy and ferny, and the same lush kelly green that lines Fern Canyon's walls. In the early spring, the plant sends up diamond-paveed drumhead flower buds that eventually shoot out frilly rosy hairs. They are weird and gorgeous. Though the plant feigns ferny fragility, it is tough; it deals with drought and heat and poor soil, and even late in the summer, if I give it a "haircut," I get a fresh batch of lush new growth.

The young leaves on this plant, unfurling as if on a frond, are toothsome and have a remarkably similar flavor to cucumber. I've used it in salads and in the filling of little tea sandwiches, combined with chives and cream cheese. I've also used it in "spa water," but in no other ways. Suggestions? How do you imagine using this pretty edible plant? And, while we're at it, should we coin a new word for ornamental edibles? How about prettibles?