Japanese Maples – ‘As the trees grow, we grow’

By Patricia Paquette ©
March 2017

When some of my friends share smartphone photos of their beautiful grandchildren with me, I show them this bright picture, one of mine. Let me explain.

Peg's maple Nov 2015 (3)If you look at the leaves of a Japanese maple in a certain light, you’ll see why in Japan, the words for these botanical treasures can also mean “baby’s hands,” and even ”frog’s hands.”

The terms of endearment are easy to interpret, since most of the trees we know as Japanese maples are varieties of Acer palmatum (Latin for “hand”) with five to nine fingers or lobes on each leaf. ­

“Momiji,” as these trees are often called, translates to “becomes crimson leaves” and indeed, Japanese maples serve up a four-season feast of color in the garden.

What’s Your Favorite Color?

While chartreuse green is the preferred shade of summer leaf in Japan, most of the 800 or more Japanese maple cultivars available today are drawn from a palette out of Monet’s gardens. You don’t need a photograph to imagine how A. palmatum ‘Crimson Queen’ or ‘Fireglow’ will look in full leaf. On the other hand, bare branches on some varieties such as ‘Bihou,’ or the coral-bark maple, Sango-Kaku,’ glow like saffron or coral firesticks throughout the winter months. And then there’s autumn. I know people who host parties on afternoons in the fall just so they can serve up their maples’ annual show of flaming cognac leaves.

A. palmatum 'Japanese Sunrise '- Essence of the tree
A. palmatum ‘Japanese Sunrise’ – fr. Essence of the Tree

If just one maple warms up your view, imagine an entire forest of scarlet, apricot, and cranberry. When “leaf-peepers” in North America are traveling to marvel at the fall fireworks of our native hardwood forests, people in Japan take to the countryside for ‘”momiji-gari” – “hunting maple” or “maple viewing.”

A. palmatum and other small trees in the family, such as A. japonicum, have been cultivated in Japanese gardens for centuries. Their natural range stretches from Japan to parts of Korea, China, and Russia, where in the wild, they reach 20 or 30 feet high, often growing in the understory of open woods between larger trees.

Patricia Smyth, owner of Essence of the Tree in Northern California, reminds us that in Japan, where trees are glorified in art, poetry and textiles, pines are the “fathers,” protecting the small maples – the “little girls” – from intense sun and wind.

Late Bloomer

The wonder is that I fell for the “little girls” so late, after so many years and so many gardens of my own. My heart was stolen by a traditional ‘Bloodgood’ cultivar that came with the old house we bought in Seattle. In the first week, even before arranging TV hookups and recycling pickups, I’d already called one of the city’s best arborists for a checkup. He said my tree had been planted about 50 years earlier and that one of the area’s historic windstorms had no doubt ripped off one of its heavy branches, leaving a scar close to the ground. But for most of its life, it had been shaped and pruned by someone with an artistic hand, whose legacy I emulated for the 25 years the tree was in my care.

Surrounded by fragrant, towering Douglas fir and cedar trees, I only had eyes for that spreading maple in front of the house. Parents with their first child had nothing on me. I photographed my tree in all seasons, dripping coral flowers in spring and silver raindrops all winter. Each November, I spent hours wrapping the branches in white fairy lights — something like the Northwest version of fireflies, now that I think of it. I mowed the lawn under her bare branches into a low-pile carpet that would capture her Oriental rug pattern of branch-shadows under sunlight, moonlight and streetlights.

Winter tracery of my tree’s branches

Maples in Your Garden?

My tree had generally good garden manners, fitting gracefully into her setting. Small size is yet another reason Japanese maples are prized; they range from tabletop bonsai to landscape focal points. While they grow best in USDA planting zones 5-6 to 9, Smyth is working to expand their reach into challenging environments across the country; she’s nurturing and developing hardy small-scale cultivars for gardens or containers which retain “the essence of the tree” and can be sheltered from severe weather in a protected space. She takes her time. “Knowing a tree as an individual for many years, from spring through summer and fall and the quiet of winter, year by year, is a privilege,” Smyth says. “As the tree grows, I grow.”

I understand. To me, Japanese maples have individual personalities unlike any other garden tree. With their approachable form and ease of care, they seem content to share their long lives companionably alongside ours, growing slowly along with us, making few demands, and rewarding us immeasurably.

Smyth named one of her trees after Yuki Nara, a revered Northern California Japanese maple “godmother.” Nara honors the maples by leading workshops demonstrating pruning principles that develop their lightweight beauty and grace. In Way of Maple, she advises us to look closely at the tree’s role in our garden “to make the best use for a tree’s life” – and for ours in return.

Leaving a Legacy

It was easier to leave the house than my tree when I moved from the West Coast to the East. There are plenty of other places to live, but no replacement for the tree I’d loved for 25 years and that had been growing for two generations before that. However, in every one of those years, I collected and nurtured countless hybrid seedlings that popped up in my yard. They grew into a surprise confetti of leaf shapes, colors and forms – greens, burgundies, pinks, finely cut laceleaf, weeping, and upright.

During those years, I also offered countless messages into the wind thanking those who had planted the tree in that place. And I returned the favor by bequeathing her offspring to fund-raising plant sales and to cherished friends.

The color of one of my prettiest upstarts inspired me to give it to a former colleague, an artist whose red hair matches its gold-red leaves. She, too, nurtured it first in a pot, and then rooted it into the earth. Last fall, she sent the “baby picture” of her seedling, now coming into its own, its “baby hands” reaching out to future generations. No wonder I feel like a grandmother.

Lifelong love affair with gardening

By Patricia Paquette
February 2017 ©

“… I keep reminding myself that in the life of a garden, as in life itself, things change.” I thought I knew what Martha Stewart meant when I first read these words on the last page of her March 1999 Gardening magazine. Today, almost 20 years later, they mean something much more personal. I’ve learned that while age may catch up with us and injuries may trip us up, our enthusiasm for gardening does not dim. If anything, it can become even more vital with life’s changing seasons.

Home is where the garden is. While publications such as Better Homes and Gardens report that accessibility and “aging in place” are among top remodeling trends, we dedicated gardeners are expanding that trend to include “gardening in place,” because for us, gardening can be as critical to our daily well-being as grab bars and wide doorways. With that in mind, perhaps it’s time to consider making our gardens more accessible.

Mom ~ In the Garden, In Love

My mother taught me this life lesson. She was a redhead, but you could’ve figured that out even if she’d been wearing one of her wide-brimmed gardening hats. She was vivacious, quick to offer an opinion and often compared to film star Rita Hayworth. She dressed for the garden in fashion-forward “pedal pushers” (a.k.a. cropped pants) and Revlon’s famous va-va-voom “Fire and Ice” lipstick, favored by glamor icons of the 1950s.

Mom the beauty
Mom, a gardenia in her hair

I recently unearthed a lifetime of cards and letters she sent to me, some wrapped in faded ribbon, most with standard and endearing reports, and probably written at the kitchen table: They had adopted yet another homeless cat. Her granddaughter had come to visit. Oh, those California legislators. And she missed me.

But every letter, no matter what the rest of its news, included something about her garden. When words wouldn’t do, she tucked in photographs of a spectacular lily, her deep red beefsteak tomatoes, or new potting bench. All of them gave her a thrill that lasted through her 88 years. When it came time for assisted living, it had to be a “garden complex,” where Mom became an unpaid consultant to the gardening staff, freely offering unsolicited advice – and I’ll bet most of it was good. There, after a lifetime of digging in the dirt outdoors, she discovered potted orchids, and when she left, we found a paradise of Phalaenopsis and Dendrobiums blooming on her dresser, bookcases and windowsills.

Orchids, a Fountain of Youth?

Looking back, I’m certain those exotic orchids were my mother’s fountain of youth.

Moth orchid Phaelonopsis schilleriana, by Judgefloro
Phelaonopsis schilleriana (moth) orchid – Judgefloro

Gardeners will understand what I mean. We’re rejuvenated by working with our plants, indoors or out. Certainly, gardening encourages a healthy meditative state. We have a well-deserved reputation for losing track of time in the garden, what psychologists term “flow,” when time stands still and we become immersed in the problem-solving, hard work, and sensory feast of scents, colors, weather and sound – from cheering birdsong to the annoying leaf-blower next door. One explanation is “the biophilia hypothesis,” which proposes that we humans “are instinctively drawn to connect with other living, growing things, and the feeling that we are part of the web of life,” say writers at EarthEasy, a sustainable living online publication. The term was popularized by biologist and Pulitzer Prize winner E. O. Wilson, who described it as “linking with nature” in his 1984 book, “Biophilia.”

In that same year, Science magazine published a landmark study at Texas A&M which found that patients recovering from gallbladder surgery spent significantly fewer days in the hospital, had fewer complaints, and took less pain medication when the view from their windows was of trees rather than of a brick wall. This well-known study, recounted by Web MD, “found strong evidence that nature helps heal.”

The findings also confirmed observations dating from oldest times and continuing today in the field of horticultural therapy and rehabilitation.

Where to Begin? Drawing up a Personal ‘Estate Plan’

The physical, emotional, mental and spiritual benefits of gardening are so well-documented it’s no wonder that gardeners and their families want to prolong the joy.

A first step may be to simply “edit” your landscape by replacing time-intensive shrubs, flowers and groundcovers with more sustainable options. Hybridizers and global plant-hunters are coming up with smaller and hardier varieties that require less work, water and pruning, and “that’s a good thing,” as Martha Stewart might say.

Nurseries and garden centers are responding to the market with a variety of these and other solutions. “A lifelong love of gardening should not have to end as mobility and other issues arise in seniors,” says GardeningKnowHow expert Bonnie L. Grant. In stores and online, gardeners can find specialized kneelers and garden seats, waist-high raised beds, and ergonomic tools that make tasks easier for all ages and abilities.

Or Try This: ‘Jewelbox’ Tabletop Gardens

Every year, visitors from around the world come to Filoli, a historic country estate just south of San Francisco. They marvel at its acres of gardens, which include intricate, 36-ft square medieval-style “knot” gardens woven in the gray-blue shades of herbs such as English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and ‘Tuscan Blue’ rosemary (Rosemarinus officinalis), contrasted with dark burgundy plants such as ‘Crimson Pygmy’ barberry (Berberis thunbergii).

Filoli mini knot garden
Miniature knot garden (front) at Filoli

Even more memorable are the miniature, 36-inch replicas in raised stone beds quilted with miniature boxwood (Buxus microphylla sp.), Leptospermum scoparium Kiwi-Tea Tree Red,’ and topiaries of ‘Compacta’ dwarf myrtle (Myrtus communis ssp tarentina), among other tiny wonders.
Celebrated English plantswoman Vita Sackville-West would have taken off her work gloves and applauded at the sight. More than 50 years ago, in her Garden Book, she advocated creating “sink gardens” for challenged gardeners, usefully recycling stone sinks that were being discarded in favor of postwar porcelain and aluminum versions coming into vogue. She suggested raising the stone troughs on cinder blocks. A bonus: Drainage was already built in. “The sink gardener is like a jeweller working in precious stones,” she said, “trying experiments and changing them easily if they don’t work out.”

Tabletop gardens are part of my personal “horticultural estate plan” for the future and have also inspired me to think of ways to help family members and friends extend their planting pleasure. For instance, terrariums, indoor tray gardens and window boxes, which can encourage many gardeners through harsh winter weather or the winters of their lives.

Lifelong Redheads and Lovers of Gardening

As my mother proved to me, a gardener can grow plants just about anywhere. After a lifetime outdoors, she’d discovered something new and invigorating. Although she didn’t know it, she was following in the footsteps of red-headed “Founding Gardener” Thomas Jefferson. Nearly two centuries ago, Jefferson spoke for many of us when, at age 68, he wrote these words in a letter to American painter and naturalist Charles Willson Peale: “No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, & no culture comparable to that of the garden … such a variety of subjects, some one (sic) always coming to perfection, the failure of one thing repaired by the success of another… but tho’ an old man, I am but a young gardener.” And even though his red hair had turned silver, he continued to garden for 15 years longer.

Pomegranate ~ ‘Nothing like this experience’

By Patricia Paquette
January 2017

If Mother Nature hadn’t bestowed a tiny crown on pomegranates, her human subjects might certainly have placed one there by now. These jeweled fruits have delighted our ancestors at the table and in the arts for millennia. And if anything, their popularity has reached an all-time high in the modern world.

Pomegranate Council photo

None of that made any difference to us when we were youngsters and transplants from New England to Southern California. My brother, sisters and I barely noticed the pomegranate tree that sometimes scratched our bare arms when we raced in and out of the kitchen door. However, all that changed during our first autumn, when we peeled open the baseball-sized fruits and turned ourselves into vampires, crimson juice running down our faces and arms and staining the concrete patio. To this day, we still agree that no other fruit – apple, banana or pear – is so mysterious and so much fun to eat.

Only recently did I learn that other children, in other cultures, grow up enjoying pomegranates in a much more elegant way. My eyes were opened by a former colleague, a distinguished television journalist, who wrote to tell me how he had learned to eat pomegranates from members of his Middle Eastern family. They left Iran when he was 4 years old, and he went back to visit during the summer of his freshman year in college. Throughout his childhood, many of his relatives came to see his family here, he said . . .

“. . .So my memories are from those moments with family, and this is how I recall it. To start, we would not cut the pomegranate open. Instead, first we warmed the fruit by cradling it in our hands . . .”

He had learned an age-old custom of sharing and honoring this legendary fruit, which has been in cultivation throughout most of human history. The pomegranate tree is native to the Middle East from Iran to the Himalayas in northern India, and thrives today in semi-arid, mild-temperate climates throughout the world.

Its family tree is ripe with mythology and symbolism evoking love, luck and long life. The fruit is one of the sacred symbols of Aphrodite, goddess of love – you may also know her as the Roman goddess Venus, the one pictured rising from a seashell, long, golden-red hair flowing. In ancient Roman times, women wore headdresses made of pomegranate twigs to signify their availability for marriage.birth-of-venus

Some customs still prevail. In Crete, when a bride enters her new home, the groom hands her a pomegranate. In Turkey, the bride throws a pomegranate to the ground after the marriage ceremony in the belief that the number of seeds that spill out indicates the number of children she will bear.

Indeed, it seems that artists, writers and storytellers have enjoyed pomegranates as much as we do. In Greek mythology, the six pomegranate seeds that Hades tricked the goddess Persephone into eating account for our alternate seasons of growth and fallow on the earth. Centuries later, in another story, Juliet tries to convince Romeo to stay a while longer, since it’s still early enough that they can hear the nightingale, who “nightly sings in yon pomegranate tree.” The fruit is pictured in works from ancient times to those by Renaissance artists such as Botticelli and da Vinci, either being held in hand, ripe with promise, or having burst open to display its seeds – which are technically called “arils.”

These images became entwined with my colleague’s story, and as he continued, I could almost hear his dramatic “news” voice narrating the words on my computer screen . . .

“. . . When the pomegranate is warm, we squeeze it between our two hands until we can hear the seeds inside start to make a crunching sound. Then, we pass the fruit to a friend or to another member of the family, who takes a turn at squeezing firmly – but not too firmly, because you don’t want to break the skin. There’s an art to this.”  

Yes, art and time. The noble pomegranate has been traced to the 3rd millennium B.C.E. through fossil records, stories and images. It was eaten, used in medical treatments and when dried and powdered, its red-leather skin was the source of dye for carpets. The “father of medicine,” Hippocrates, used pomegranate to soothe problems from digestion to skin inflammation.

Among other evidence of its value to human life and culture, a Purdue University research paper points out that pomegranates were “featured in Egyptian mythology and art, praised in the Old Testament of the Bible and in the Babylonian Talmud, and carried by desert caravans for the sake of their thirst-quenching juice.”

This long history is echoed in my friend’s story about eating pomegranates with his family:

“When we don’t hear or feel any more crunching sounds, the pomegranate is ready to be bitten into and enjoyed. Just a small bite, so you can start drinking the juice, and then, using your two hands, squeeze it even more, passing it back and forth.”

Even this fruit’s name is packed with juicy history. An essay in HortScience explains that pomegranates are known as Punica granatum in the horticultural world, so named by the eminent botanist Carl Linnaeus: Punica is a variation on the Roman name for Carthage, the ancient city in northern Tunisia from which the best pomegranates came to Italy. In Medieval Latin, “pome” is apple or fruit, and granatum means seedy or grainy. Interestingly, since “pomme” is French for “apple,” its name in the United States literally means “seedy apple.” However, the French are said to call the fruit, “grenade,” because of its similarities in appearance to the military weapon.

By 2000 B.C.E., Phoenicians had established Mediterranean Sea colonies in North Africa, bringing pomegranates to modern-day Tunisia and Egypt. As traced in HortScience, the fruit’s journey continued around the globe and by 800 C.E., pomegranates were known across the Roman Empire, including Spain, whose explorers and settlers introduced it into the Americas.

The trees were grown in Spanish Florida and English Georgia in the early 1700s, were planted at Monticello by the intrepid red-headed “founding gardener” Thomas Jefferson in the 1770s, and had made their way across the continent to the Spanish mission orchards in California at about the same time. California Rare Fruit Growers have traced ‘Wonderful,’ the most commonly grown cultivated variety in the United States, to its discovery in Florida and cultivation in California by 1896.

NC State Extension Service photo

Can you grow your own? Yes, if you live in areas of the desert Southwest United States. Gardeners in the Southeast should look for one of the humidity-tolerant selections developed for this region. Pomegranates require high summer temperatures to produce fruit successfully. In other regions, gardeners value the shrubby trees as landscape plants, where they are especially useful as hedges, with glossy leaves and showy orange-red flowers beloved by hummingbirds. However, those flowers are usually not going to develop into the familiar large fruits. Information on your state’s Cooperative Extension website can help you choose recommended cultivated varieties for your garden or orchard.

Even in very cold climates, dwarf cultivars will do well in in outdoor containers when they are treated like tender perennials and protected from frost; look for the name ‘Nana’ in the description on the plant tag. Because Nana’s flowers and fruits are miniatures of those on the standard-sized plants, these little trees are treasured subjects for bonsai artists.

While the pomegranate’s story is woven into the rich tapestry of art and culture in many countries of the Old World, the widely proclaimed health benefits of its high level of antioxidants are earning it a place in the New World. And then there are the recipes, some thousands of years old and some on menus in 5-star restaurants, from cocktails – pomegranate juice is the basis of grenadine syrup, after all – to desserts such as pomegranate panna cotta.

With prepared juice, syrup and seeds available in most grocery stores, it’s easy to venture beyond the gorgeous sprinkles we see on so many salads, and try a salad dressing, such as this vinaigrette:

Pomegranate-Honey Vinaigrette
1 cup POM Wonderful pomegranate juice
4 T red wine vinegar
4 T honey
4 tsp Dijon mustard
4 tsp chopped fresh thyme (or ½ teaspoon dried)
1 tsp fresh tarragon (or ½ teaspoon dried)

Mix these ingredients in a blender or shake them in an air-tight container until well-blended. Serve with salad greens or over a salad of roasted vegetables and cooked grains such as quinoa, rice or lentils. If you explore, you’ll find similar salad dressing recipes made with olive oil or pomegranate “molasses” syrup.

And now that his story about sharing a pomegranate was drawing to a close, my friend described a memorable, mouth-watering ending . . .

“. . . And at some point, and hopefully not too early, the skin will break open even more and you can cut the pomegranate open and enjoy the seeds that haven’t broken. There’s really nothing like the taste, and nothing like this experience.”

I cannot wait to try this with an adventurous friend. Just to be on the safe side, we’ll probably try it outdoors, on the patio. With prosecco.

‘Opportunities to let imaginations run wild’

By Patricia Paquette
December 2016

My neighbor laughed when he walked to his mailbox the other day and said, “You remind me of a garden gnome – every time I see you, you’ve popped up somewhere else in the yard.” He was thinking of the red-hatted garden gnomes that have become popular in a good taste-bad taste sort of way these days. The little guys have even played starring roles in elaborate pranks, in which they are “kidnapped” and taken on vacation by the pranksters, who photograph them at famous sites (on the edge of the Grand Canyon, at Disney World, the Eiffel Tower). From what I’ve heard, they’re usually returned to their gardens, complete with a packet of souvenir photos, at the end of their outings.

I’d like to think the traveling gnomes enjoyed the vacation from their duties as garden sentries and good luck charms.

But: A Family of Gnomes?

“Just what makes a statue or ornament acceptable really depends on individual taste,” writes British garden designer David Stevens in Town Gardens. “Brightly colored gnomes are considered so appalling by some as to bring on an instant headache. But don’t become a gardening snob,” he says. “If you want a gnome, then by all means have one, or a family of them. Gardening is after all fun, and as soon as you remove that essential sense of humour the whole exercise becomes dull.”

I say, ask yourself, “what would a redhead do”?

Or Flocks of Flamingos?

In 1957, flamingos began their migration from the tropics and subtropics to gardens and yards across the country. That’s when the familiar fake plastic birds were created by artist Don Featherstone in Leominster, Mass. In later interviews, he ascribed their popularity to the postwar subdivisions of similar-looking suburban houses, says Smithsonian online.

Southern Patio flamingos (Home Depot)

“You had to mark your house somehow,” Featherstone says. “A woman could pick up a flamingo at the store and come home with a piece of tropical elegance under her arm to change her humdrum house.” She would’ve paid $2.76 a pair for the first models.
In 1987, CNN online says, “the governor of Massachusetts proclaimed the plastic birds ‘an essential contribution to American folk art,’ wrote historian Jennifer Price in her book, Flight Maps.” By 1998, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art was selling the flamingos for $19 pair. The plastic flamingo’s birthright includes plenty of social commentary explaining their waxing and waning popularity over the decades. At this point, however, they don’t seem to be an endangered species. And they may even be something Americans can agree on.

And Fairies, Too?

Last time I looked, more than 1,000 images of fairy gardens were posted on Pinterest. Fairy gardening has become “more than a trend,” says GardenCenter, a trade magazine for garden retailers. The retailers are meeting consumer demand with special sections displaying everything from tiny houses, arbors, stepping stones and plants (succulents, miniature conifers, mosses) to, of course, the fairies themselves. Centers also present workshops where gardeners (and their fairy-clad youngsters) learn the basics of design and care for their mini-landscaping. Customers have taken to this trend, the magazine says, “because it offers opportunities to let imaginations run wild, and the potential to do so is unlimited.”

Ghosts & Ghouls

Ghouls rising up from damp earth. Gargantuan spiders pouncing on porches. Witches in the shrubbery. All are familiar in Halloween displays every fall. U.S. consumers were expected to spend $8.4 billion for the holiday in 2016 – an all-time high in the 11-year history of the annual survey conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics for the National Retail Federation. The report also notes that more than 171 million Americans were planning to partake in Halloween festivities. And then costumes and props go back into storage to make room for the holidays of December.


Glass flowers in bloom

“Whimsy” is one of 12 essential design principles outlined by American garden and lifestyle expert P. Allen Smith and, he says, it’s “an element I try to incorporate in all of my garden design.” In his first guidebook, Garden Home, Smith tells about his design proposal to a friend with “a houseful of exceptionally ‘quotable’ children”: He suggested “immortalizing some of their humorous statements by engraving them into stepping-stones for her garden.” The bottom line? “Humorous responses to nature and the garden help us to maintain a healthy perspective and attitude about life.”

Too Many Tchotchkes?

DIY gardener Susan Martin outlines the successful transformation of her bare suburban Illinois yard into a lush and well-loved garden in This Old House. One of five “Time-Tested Tips” she learned and shared with TOH writers and readers is to edit non-plant objects in the garden. “Sculptures, antique farm implements, and other art elements add pizzazz and a personal touch to a garden,” TOH says, “but if you want them to work as accents, not background noise, you have to choose carefully. Susan displayed everything she received as gifts or found at flea markets. Then a visitor to her garden made a remark about ‘tchotchkes,’ and she realized her garden had become too cluttered. She edited down her display and now features a single large piece in each bed.”

Smart Replies

What do you say to someone who asks for your opinion about their garden?  Steve Bender, Southern Living’s popular and respected “grumpy gardener,” has a distinctively Southern answer in the 2016 Golden Anniversary edition of the magazine. “Answer smartly” he says, when a person asks what you think of their (to you, anyway) ugly yard. “Try, ‘That’s really something!’ Or ‘I’ve never seen that before!’ or, ‘Who would have thought of that?’ he advises. “But never say, ‘Bless your heart’,” because, “If you do, they’ll know you think it’s ugly.”


Peppers ~ Do you believe in magic?

The most memorable moments in Hollywood and Broadway awards shows are often not in scripts. So, when cinema luminary Federico Fellini came to the microphone during the 1992 Academy Awards, he had me at “ciao.”

I set my glass of wine and bowl of popcorn down on the kitchen table and leaned forward. This could be interesting. The beloved Italian writer-director was being presented with an honorary Oscar for a lifetime of unforgettable movies – Amarcord, La Dolce Vita, 8 ½ and more. Fellini was more than a genius filmmaker. He was also famous for his choice quotes, and he didn’t disappoint, wrapping up his short remarks with a generous smile and the observation that “Life is a combination of magic and pasta.”

I’m not the only one to have been smitten by that delicious remark, which has become as popular as pizza. And why not? It’s the perfect recipe, and for many cooks and gardeners it can be improved only by adding some peppers to the sauce for the pasta – or really, just about anything else on the plate. Peppers are on U.S menus around the clock these days, from huevos rancheros at breakfast to Mexican cocoa at bedtime.

Even gardeners who don’t crave the heat have discovered that milder peppers can transform a recipe, and that all varieties are generally easy to grow and as beautiful in the garden as on the plate. There really is something for every taste.

Peppers – Born in the Americas

Peppers are native to the Americas and have been part of the earth’s landscape since before human settlement in South America, where geological evidence dates them to tens of thousands of years ago. Evidence of human use dates back at least 6,000 years. According to Virginia pepper expert and grower Mark Ragland, the Mayans, Incas and Aztecs were primarily responsible for their domestication and culture, selectively choosing peppers in the wild that they preferred. Most people are surprised to learn that “there are no peppers native to Asia, Europe, or any other country,” Ragland says.

“Ask a Chinese chili lover or an Indian or a Thai and most will swear that chilies are native to their homeland, so integral is the spice to their cooking, so deeply embedded is it in their culture,” writes Simon Robinson in Time Magazine.

Pepper Explosion – Who Lit the Fuse?

Long Red Cayenne peppers (Monticello Garden Store)

We can blame it all on Christopher Columbus, according to historians. When he set sail from Spain in 1492, the explorer was searching for a westward route to Asia and its ample chest of spices, particularly rare and expensive black pepper. Making landfall in the Caribbean, he encountered hot peppers. Fortunately for us, Columbus was not a culinarian or a botanist. Because they were spicy, he mistook the exotic fruits for the black peppercorn (Piper nigrum, the dried seed from an entirely different plant), and brought them back to Spain. The rest is history.

A Famous Redhead and his Cayennes

Pepper fever spread like wildfire almost as soon as the plants left the New World and were introduced into cuisines around the globe.

Thomas Jefferson, the red-headed Founding Gardener who was born with a silver trowel in his hand, was among the early adopters. In 1767, just before his 24th birthday, he planted his first Long Red Cayenne Pepper (Capsicum annuum) plants at Shadwell, his Virginia birthplace.

And 45 years later, and just a few miles away, he was still planting peppers, this time at his world-famous gardens at Monticello. One of his garden records shows that Jefferson received the seeds of the Texas Bird Pepper (C. annuum glabriusculum) from Army Captain Samuel Brown of San Antonio. In the time-honored tradition of pass-along plants, Jefferson grew them and then forwarded seeds to Philadelphia nurseryman Bernard McMahon, who was reported to have popularized the colorful Bird Pepper as an ornamental potted plant, which is still available today.

Both Cayenne and Bird peppers are handsome plants and if you’re short on garden space, you can grow both in containers. Like all peppers, they need warmth, abundant sunshine and good soil. The Cayenne’s dark green foliage sparkles with tiny icy-white flowers that mature into green fruits and then into scarlet exclamation pepper points. Imagine glamorous movie star Julianne Moore walking the red carpet in a form-fitting red dress and a diamond necklace. You get the picture.

Texas Bird Chili (Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center)

The Texas Bird Pepper plant reaches only about 12 inches high, with reddish-orange fruits the size of tiny cherry tomatoes. Brown wrote Jefferson that “The Spaniards use it in a fine Powder & seldom eat anything without it. The Americans … make a pickle of the green Pods with Salt & Vinegar which they use with Lettuce, Rice, Fish, etc.” Today, this basic recipe for “pepper vinegar” remains as popular as salt and pepper on tables throughout the Southern states and beyond.


Maybe it’s your turn to garden like a redhead, and make your garden, your pasta – and your life – more magical by sprinkling in some cayenne. If you’re just getting started, only two or three plants can provide enough peppers to last until the next summer’s harvest. You may have enough left over for holiday gifts of pepper vinegar or easy-to-make dried pepper flakes, or to use as long-lasting decorations. As every gardener knows, these gifts from the earth are even sweeter when they’re home-grown.

Pasta Fresca No. 1
This homegrown recipe opened my eyes to the magic of peppers and pasta.

Line up your ingredients (“mise en place,” say the French) while you start boiling water for the pasta.


Pasta to serve two

2 T good olive oil
1 bunch of scallions (chopped)
1 ½ C canned or fresh tomatoes (chopped, incl. juice)
1 tsp sugar
fresh oregano & parsley (finely chopped)
¼ tsp (generous pinch) dried red/cayenne pepper flakes
pinch (generous) fennel seed (ground slightly in a mortar & pestle)
salt & pepper to taste
fresh basil (chopped) – or frozen cube of pesto, if you have it on hand
Italian cheese(s) of your choice

Optional add-ins: some good pepperoni, browned Italian sausage or a few shrimp that you’ve sautéed in olive oil. Prepare them ahead of time, before the steps below ~

This goes together quickly. While pasta is boiling ~

  1. Sauté scallions with olive oil in a shallow pan
  2. When soft & slightly golden, stir in the remaining ingredients and simmer just a few minutes, uncovered, to reduce slightly
  3. Then, fold in extras if you’d like, such a shrimp, Italian sausage or pepperoni
  4. Serve over pasta and sprinkle with your favorite freshly grated or shaved Italian cheeses (Parmesan, Romano, Asiago)

Buon appetito!

Roses ~ ‘… and when she opened her suitcase …’

By Patricia Paquette
October 2016

I overheard two women talking on the street one gray winter morning in downtown Seattle when these words stopped me cold: “And when she opened her suitcase in the hotel room, it was filled with red roses.” I was on my way into the office, and a little late, but the sheer romance of this image, its stunning luxury, erased all thoughts of the day ahead. Don’t you wonder what came before the flower-filled suitcase – or after? I’m guessing the woman in the hotel room, or whoever packed her suitcase, must have been a redhead.

What flower can rival the place reserved for roses in our hearts and gardens? And no wonder, with its long and loved history in the wilds and in cultivation.

Ancient History – in Colorado and China

Fossil evidence for roses dates back some 70 million years in Asia and from 35 million years ago in North America. “Rose species are found only in the Northern Hemisphere, and no one knows why,” according to the American Rose Society, which notes that specimens found near Canyon City, Colo., closely resemble the modern-day species familiar to many gardeners, Rosa nutkana (the Nootka Rose) and R. palustris (the Swamp Rose).

It’s easy to get lost in the thicket of rose history, categories and hybridization, but time travel a few millennia forward and, says the National Arboretum, “you’ll find that the majority of modern roses owe more of their genetic heritage to Chinese species than to all others combined.”

'Champneys Pink Cluster' - AntiqueRoseEmporium.com
‘Champneys Pink Cluster’ – AntiqueRoseEmporium.com

Indeed, garden cultivation of roses began some 5,000 years ago, probably in China. However, even before the first ever-blooming rose made the trip from China to Europe in the late 1700s, “roses were already one of the most loved flowers in Western culture, with unparalleled beauty and fragrance,” say Arboretum historians. This was true even though nearly every variety grown in those times bloomed for only about a month each spring. Then, the newly arrived ‘China’ rose (R. chinensis) burst on the scene, blooming all season long, and cloaked in even more beautiful petals and fragrance. Just imagine.

A Ground-breaking American Rose – With a French Name

Native species roses were growing in North America while the continent was being settled by Europeans. Captain John Smith records a rose today thought to be R. Virginiana, which caused a sensation when it was exported to Europe. However, “there is no other class of roses more American than the Noisettes,” in the opinion of horticulturists such as those at Carolina Gardener. The Noisette was the first rose hybridized in the new country, and is named for Phillippe Noisette, a French-born horticulturist and neighbor of John Champneys, a rice farmer in Charleston, So. Carolina. This was in the early 1800s, when Charleston was a major port in the global plant trade.

‘Champneys Pink Cluster,’ the first in the new class, resulted from a cross between ‘Old Blush’ (a China rose, R. chinensis) and the European musk rose (R. moschata) in Champneys’ garden. As the story goes, Champneys gave some of the infant plants to Noisette, who collected its seeds, developed the ‘Blush Noisette, and sent that seed to his brother in Europe, where it became a parent of a long line of roses stretching even to today.

The Twinleaf Journal published at Thomas Jefferson’s home in Monticello notes that ‘Champneys Pink Cluster’ “remained an important ornamental through the nineteenth century. Jefferson’s long life was ending just as this new breed, the Noisette, was emerging on the scene.” Ever the cutting-edge plantsman, however, in 1791 he ordered two each of the ‘Monthly rose’ (R. chinensis cv.) and the ‘Musk Rose’ (R. moschata) from a New York nursery.

Roses stepped into their “modern” period 75 years later when the first hybrid tea rose was developed in 1867. These are the roses you want in your cutting garden, in the vase, or in the florist’s delivery box – or suitcase – when you open it.

Four Men and a Rose

George Washington. Noisette roses are still grown today and are admired for their beauty and vigor. One example is the white ‘Martha Washington’ Noisette grown at and around the Mount Vernon estate of our first president. But just like the story of the cherry tree, it is a myth that George planted and named it for his mother – since the new American rose was developed after Washington’s death.

Ronald Reagan.  “The American people have long held a special place in their hearts for roses.” So said President Ronald Reagan when he signed a proclamation declaring the rose as the national flower in November 1986. Speaking in the famed White House Rose Garden, he noted that roses are grown in all 50 states and that, “more often than any other flower, we hold the rose dear as the symbol of life and love and devotion, of beauty and eternity.”

Robert Burns. Roses are the basis of countless perfumes, poems, and songs. You may know Scots poet Robert Burns’ 1794 song, A Red, Red, Rose

O my Luve’s like a red, red rose That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve’s like the melodie That’s sweetly play’d in tune. …

& Bob Dylan. But did you know that songwriter and musician Bob Dylan is on the record as saying that the lyrics to Burns’ song have had the greatest effect on his creative life?

‘A Dish for the Gods’

We’ll dig into 21st century roses and current horticultural practices another day, probably in deep midwinter, when we most crave garden daydreams. In the meantime, let’s dream about a rose-flavored recipe for Quail in Rose-Petal Sauce that inspired passion among diners in Laura Esquivel’s fanciful novel and movie, Like Water for Chocolate.

Can you tell that I love roses? So of course, I tried it myself. The most difficult part was bringing enough rose petals to bloom all at the same time during a gray Seattle summer. I grew two plants of R. ‘Glory Days,’ a hybrid tea with a fragrance and taste something like ripe nectarines.

Why did I try it? This sentence, like the one about the rose-filled suitcase, caught my heart: “When Pedro tasted his first mouthful, he couldn’t help closing his eyes in voluptuous delight and exclaiming: ‘It is a dish for the gods.’ ”

Quail in Rose-Petal Sauce

12 roses, preferably red (organic, no sprays)
12 chestnuts
2 tsp butter
salt & pepper
2 tsp cornstarch
2 drops attar of roses
2 T anise
2 T good honey
2 cloves garlic
6 quail
1 pitaya (dragonfruit)

The novel is short on direction, but cooks and romantics can find a recipe online, at sites such as the Food Network, Pinterest and others. Like all cooks, I adjusted this recipe to taste, using three small Cornish game hens instead of quail, plums instead of dragonfruit, and an olive oil-butter combination to reduce burning. And although it’s not on the list of ingredients, I splashed some fruity red wine into the sauce.


Finding ourselves in the garden ~ a memoir and guide

By Patricia Paquette
September 2016

‘Red hair, sir, in my opinion, is dangerous’
P.G. Wodehouse, Very Good, Jeeves!

You know that old saying about blondes having more fun? Don’t you believe it. The fun and the fireworks really belong to redheads. It’s not just about the hair color they were born with. More than anything else, being a redhead is a state of mind – audacious, determined, and ready to take on a challenge. And most of the time, that’s what it takes to be a success in the garden.

I’ve read that less than one percent of people in the world have naturally red hair. Luckily for the rest of us, we can always act like we do – in the garden, anyway. You know who you are – the ones who grow roses in Seattle and lettuce in the deserts of the southwest, who scoop up the latest introductions from global plant-hunters such as Dan Hinkley and who have been cooking up compost and landscaping with native plants before they were a “thing.”

Welcome to my garden – of plants, experiences and stories inspired by redheads. And, just as gardeners share pass-along plants, I hope you share yours in return.

My first gardens were in the Pacific Northwest, where I fell in love with blazing Japanese maples that brightened even the grayest days. Now I’m a transplant to the red clay soil of Virginia, which you could call a natural state for redheads and their gardens. The Commonwealth’s family tree includes American history’s most famed red-headed gardener, Thomas Jefferson, and the firebrand revolutionary Patrick Henry. And it’s said that Revolutionary War hero Marquis de OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALafayette, whose career flourished on Colonial Virginia’s soil, hid red hair under his powdered wig.

Today, I’m inspired by these historic personalities and by my vivacious gardening companion, a curious orange feline who’s ready for action at the first call of scarlet cardinals in the morning. So, with these words from another well-known redhead – and cat-fancier – Mark Twain, let’s head to our gardens – in the backyard or on the deck, indoors or out . . .

“While the rest of the species is descended from apes, redheads are descended from cats.”  Mark Twain