Category: Member’s Musings

BOOK REVIEW: The Illustrated Garden Book by Vita Sackville-West

The Illustrated Garden Book by Vita Sackville-West

The author of this book was not trained as a horticulturist or designer. Neither was her diplomat husband, Harold Nicolson. Nevertheless, the two of them created one of the most visited gardens in England, at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, an Elizabethan ruin which they acquired in 1930. The creation of the gardens was a labor of love that lasted decades; their marriage, not so much! The garden was open to the public in 1938 and now run by the National Trust.

West wrote gardening articles for 15 years to help pay the bills. This 1989 book version uses many of her columns, beautifully written, filled with humor and lovely photographs. It is just the perfect book for all gardeners to curl up with during this unusual summer.

Their son, Nigel Nicolson, tells the story of his parents’ unconventional marriage and social connections in Portrait of a Marriage. This book sounds intriguing as well and I have it on my future read list.

Joan Meister

The Illustrated Garden Book

The Return of the Red Head

The Return of the Red Head


I recently made the acquaintance of an old friend of Garden Club OPRF. I have really enjoyed getting to know more about the history of this peppery, Peruvian red head.  Her relatives are quite famous and—forgive the name dropping—have been seen along the garden walks at Monet’s Giverny gardens  and in paintings such as the “Dance” by Matisse. Their formal name, Tropaeolum majus was given to them by Carl Linnaeus, the botanist, in reference to an ancient custom: After a victorious battle, the Romans would hang the shields and helmets of the vanquished on a trophy pole called a tropaeum.  Linnaeus was reminded of the shield and bloody helmets by the round leaves and the red flowers on the plant we know as Nasturtium.

The first Tropaeolum species was imported from Peru into Spain by the Spanish botanist Nicolas Monardes in the 16th century. In 1569 Monardes published Joyful News out of the Newe Founde Worlde wherein he described the plants and animals discovered in South America. In 1597 the English herbalist, John Gerard, wrote that he received the seeds in Europe and called the plant “Indian Cresses.”  The Americas were known as the Indies at this time and the plant leaves were used as a salad ingredient.

The herbaceous Nasturtiums are valued as ornamentals, food, companion plants (for garden pest control), herbal teas, medicines, and ingredients in such things as cosmetics and varnish. Herbaceous plants, also known as herbs, are plants whose leaves and stems die down to the ground at the end of the growing season. An herbaceous plant can be an annual, biennial or perennial. An herb is a seed producing plant with edible leaves and flowers.  A spice on the other hand, is a mixture of dried berries, fruits and barks used for flavoring of food. All of the Nasturtium’s above ground parts are edible. There are many recipes utilizing the leaves and flowers but even the seeds have been used as substitutes for capers and pepper.

In addition to its place in cuisine, herbal medicine, botany, and horticulture, the Nasturtium holds a place in the history of optics. Das Elisabeth Linné-Phänomen, or the Elizabeth Linnæus Phenomenon, is the name given to the phenomenon of “Flashing Flowers. Especially at dusk, the orange flowers may appear to emit small “flashes.” Once believed to be an electrical phenomenon, it is today thought to be an optical reaction in the human eye caused by the contrast between the orange flowers and the surrounding green leaves. The phenomenon is named after Elisabeth Christina von Linné, one of Carl Linnaeus’s daughters, who discovered it at age 19.

I am told that in 1942 Oak Park school children voted the Nasturtium their favorite flower. It is easy to understand why.  Nasturtiums have large seeds easily handled by children for planting directly into the ground.  A nasturtium is an annual plant in the USDA hardiness zones 3-10 but can be a perennial in climates that don’t have freezing temperatures.  Nasturtiums are easy to grow and thrive in full sun and well-draining soil and when watered about once a week. The lovely flowers range in color from bright red, orange, and yellow to a soft cream color. The flowers can be used as a decoration or eaten in a salad (as long as no pesticides have been used on them). The flowers and leaves should be gently washed and dried before using.

Nasturtium by Bobbie Raymond LarsonIn 1997 club member Bobbie Raymond Larson designed our club logo using the Nasturtium. Come the September Friendship meeting, look for a reappearance of this design on the new membership guide.

Kale Song

Kale Song

Red Russian Kale

Once again the “kale song” has hit the top numbers in the hit parade of vegetables. Greeks, Romans, and Europeans have extoled the virtues of this vegetable off and on for some 2000 years. Kale, a good source of vitamin C and cold tolerant down to 10 degree Fahrenheit, was a staple food eaten daily in Scotland. Scottish kitchen gardens were known as kailyards.  If someone was not feeling well it was said they were “off their kail.” Not to be confused with the definition of Kailyard school:

World English Dictionary:  Kailyard school:  a group of writers who depicted the sentimental and homely aspects of life in the Scottish Lowlands from about 1880 to 1914. The best known contributor to the school was J. M. Barrie.

It is believed that settlers brought kale to North America in the 17th century. Kale was popular as a nutritious vegetable to add to home victory gardens during WWII years.

After years of selective breeding of the once wild cabbage, we enjoy the edible leaves of the cultivar known today as Brassica oleracea.

So how did I become interested in kale?  Simply put I was at the Riverside Farmers Market last Wednesday and bought a big bunch of kale for $1.00. Next, while perusing the internet for recipes, to my amazement I found that kale is called a superfood.  Superfood is a non-medical term used by writers to indicate a food with an unusually high content of antioxidants, vitamins, and other nutrients. Kale’s claim to fame includes a high concentration of iron, calcium, and vitamins A, C, and K. And it is only 33 calories a cup!  The list of kale’s benefits is extensive, from my point of view: kale is inexpensive, grain free, sugar free, a good source of calcium for someone not eating dairy, and low in calories. Kale can be eaten raw, steamed, stir-fried and even in smoothies. I was determined to give kale a try.

I made a soup consisting of homemade chicken broth, sweet potatoes, and kale that was delicious.  My husband, who is an avowed vegetable-hater, ate two bowls full. This recipe is a keeper. I tried a few other recipes that were less successful. The kale chips that I baked won’t replace my beloved tortilla chips. Well not the recipe I used. I think I over baked the chips, and they became too bitter.

Kale salad
Winnie’s wonderful salad!

But last night, while at a party grazing from the buffet table, I heard someone mention the excellent kale salad that Winnie made.  Soon I too was singing the praises of that salad.  It was wilted kale with cranberries and finely chopped nuts with a vinaigrette dressing. I will be asking my hostess for that recipe without a doubt.

Red russian  kale on left, Toscano on the right
Red Russian kale on left, Toscano on the right.

Kale is easily grown from seed and survives in full sun or partial shade.  Colors range from cream, green, purple, and black. The plants take about two months to mature, grow about a foot high, and spread one to three feet across. It is not too late to plant a fall crop. To avoid insects or pesticide residue in commercial kale, be sure to rinse the kale well. One source recommends a little vinegar in the water to help clean it.

Happy eating!