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The rollicking operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan are full of songs which often come to mind. One that’s especially timely now begins, “Oh, the flowers that bloom in spring, tra la ...”
The crocus — which blooms sometimes even in a snowstorm — is usually the first to remind us that spring is really on the way. There are countless legends in Greek mythology about the crocus involving many of the gods and goddesses of ancient times.
Saffron is the product of several species of crocus. They are native to Greece and Asia Minor, where the stigma of the plant is collected soon after the flower opens. It requires at least 4,000 such stigmas to make an ounce of saffron.
Saffron is used to make a yellow dye, which has colored the robes of Buddhist monks for hundreds of years. It is used in the Orient to make a perfume and in medicines.
Wild chives and onions growing everywhere may be used in the same way as scallions or chives in salads and other dishes.
Some varieties of fern — especially bracken, swordfern and horsetail — may be picked in early spring while the young shoots are uncurled. Cook them the same way as asparagus — they even have a similar taste.
Our earliest ancestors named them fiddleheads because of the shape of their uncurled fern heads.
Wild onions, garlic and leeks are readily available in the wild all across North America. They are easily identified by their characteristic scent.
Many years ago, the Menominee Indians named a region “Shikago” because it was so rich in the strong-smelling oniony plants. In English, this name became “Chicago.” Stockyards, highways and apartment buildings have long since buried the wild plants.
Our ancestors always looked forward to the first wild greens to appear and welcomed them as a “spring tonic” to provide new energy to their winter vitamin-deprived bodies.
The most obvious of the wild greens that we have are the dandelions. Although they were first introduced in this country by our earliest settlers from Europe, many Indian tribes soon learned how good they are to eat. The leaves, best prepared by boiling in water and then chilling, are now used throughout the world.
Dandelion leaves and flowers are all edible and rich in vitamins A and C. Many country people still make dandelion wine, as their ancestors had for generations.
Deer love dandelion leaves, and pheasants and grouse like the seeds.
Everyone welcomes the little common violet as a lovely harbinger of spring. But did you know it’s an excellent source of vitamin A? A half cup of violet leaf greens will supply you with as much vitamin C as you would get from four oranges and give you more than a day’s supply of vitamin A.
Violets have long had a place in herbal medicine and were frequently mentioned in ancient times by Homer, Virgil and Pliny as important in the compounding of medicines.
Most people are not aware that nearly all of the trees in the pine family are edible. The Mohawk Indian name “Adirhon Dak” describes a tribe of people who were — and are — tree eaters.
An old tradition says if you plant seeds on Feb. 14, subsequent frosts will not kill them. Corn planted on Valentine’s Day will always have perfect ears, and possible snows after that will not harm them.
February is a distinctly low-light month. It’s a good time to consider how to increase natural light for house plants. The American Gloxinia Society — which, incidentally, was founded by a 13-year-old boy — offers some suggestions.
Paint walls white. Face interior shutters with mirrors. Paper ceilings with Mylar. Use movable screens covered with shiny white gift-wrapping paper.
Mirrors have another advantage. They double the display while adding light. Longwood Gardens effectively uses this method in its greenhouses.
In a marvelous 1557 book published in England, Thomas Tusser wrote, “In Feveral rest not for taking thy ease. Get into the ground with thy beans and thy pease. Sow pease betimes and betimes they will grow.”
There is a lot to do in February in many varied directions.
The golden flowers of the forsythia are now adorning the landscape. One lady in Ohio said, “I have a gilt-edged property,” of her forsythia hedge. And a little girl in Michigan maintains that “for Cynthia” was named for her.
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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.