Thursday, October 27, 2016

Persimmon Lore

Driving south on Hwy. 63 this month, it's hard to not take notice of the heavy laden persimmon trees in the fencerows. Last week's high winds knocked the leaves off any tree that was ready for a fall color display, leaving only green and brown leaves in the canopy. But on the fencerows, the persimmons with their bright orange fruit steal the fall color show lately.


I'm fortunate to have a friend with a massive persimmon that is a descendant of the state champion tree from Missouri's Bootheel. This related tree produces ample fruit every fall which brings in all kinds of wildlife, especially white-tailed deer. But if you collect the fruit early enough, just as the plump orange fruits fall to the ground ripe and juicy, one can process enough pulp to make several batches of persimmon bread and cookies. The best recipe for persimmon cookies comes from an old colleague in New Madrid, Missouri. Her recipe is in the local Chamber cookbook which I purchased specifically for it.

So, tonight I washed all of the persimmons and macerated them with a potato masher in a colander, sending the pulp into a Pyrex bowl below. The slimy seeds and skins are headed for my backyard compost heap where undoubtedly the raccoons and opossums will find them and have a grand time. I cut into three seeds to see what the seeds would forecast for winter. Some folks believe that if you split the seed of a persimmon and it looks like a knife, the winter will be icy. A spoon? Lots of snow. A fork? A mild winter. I cut into three seeds and they all resembled spoons. So, at least for this Outer Ozark Border country on Hwy. 63, the forecast is for a lot a of snow. Let's see if it holds true!

Saturday, October 15, 2016

After the Harvest

While September is officially Missouri Wine Month, I particularly like visiting wineries at the end of harvest in October and November. I relish in asking what the harvest looks like each year, though often the folks at the tasting bar say the same thing every time: "Looks great!" Admittedly, it's much more fun to talk to the winemaker or the grower for the real scoop. Like, "the robins ate all the Traminette," or "we're not looking forward to that early frost," and so forth.

In a wise move, the Wine and Grape Board initiated a new rewards program that will hopefully encourage visitation to our state's wonderful wineries. Not all wineries are participating, but there are some new ones that have opened up in the past few years that I haven't visited. I love returning to places I haven't visited in several years to investigate how their wine has changed, whether through the aging process or winemaker experience. I don't necessarily participate in the rewards program (in previous years a passport program)for the swag (though the Missouri Wines logo is really charming and well-executed), but for the experiences and meeting people behind this great agricultural product.

A small cadre of local friends and I are setting out next weekend for a grand tour of the Hwy. 50 wineries to pick up Wenwood Farm Winery's pumpkin wine and maybe White Mule Winery's Norton port, to check in with the German gentleman from Phoenix Winery, and to have a great Missouri winery and fall colors weekend. November is Chambourcin month and several other wineries besides St. James are releasing their Nouveau, but you'll doubtfully find this bright red wine in stores since it's usually produced in limited release. But it's perfect for the Thanksgiving table. If you haven't done so, check out the details of the rewards program here and start traveling!

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Laying Out the Welcome Mat

Last week, on my walk to the gym, I heard over 20 American goldfinches twittering their dizzy call on a busy street in my neighborhood. Several neighbors have converted their front lawns into wide swaths of native plant gardens interspersed with big stands of charismatic sunflowers and zinnias. The goldfinches were mobbing the dying sunflower stalks, stripping the enormous seedheads of all available food. My neighborhood has been transformed in the past 8 years with more and more yards converting to wild gardens that are habitable by wildlife. Members of my neighborhood association are busy posting photos of the red-shouldered and broad-winged hawks that we hear over the backyard, and more native plants including purple coneflowers and Rudbeckias are filling flower gardens. I have too much shade for a full-on wildflower garden, and I seldom see goldfinches at my feeders, but the native plants in my yard must be good for our birds and all of the pollinators that we have documented through the years.

There's not much blooming in the yard right now, but the black-capped chickadees have honed in on all of the available seed from the bumper crop of Silphium perfoliatum, a North Missouri ditch weed but pretty composite that grows like gangbusters in my yard. The Northern cardinals really enjoy the shrub layer of redbuds and dying stalks of Silphium, and the Carolina wrens are quite vocal around my brushpile and fire pit. Many months ago, my local Audubon Society chapter sponsored a showing of a grim documentary about declining songbird populations. Titled The Messenger, not to be confused with some violent crime film by the same name and with Hollywood actors, this documentary should be required viewing for anyone dubious about the state of biodiversity and the onslaught of threats our natural world is facing. Climate change, homogenization, development, they all impact bird life and the rest of the natural world. Most folks reading this weblog are well aware of threats to biodiversity and bird life, and probably many readers feed birds and care about the natural world. This documentary does not end on a happy note, much like all of my Bill McKibben books and anything written about European birds (re: Jonathan Franzen, et al.). I realize that I, personally, cannot make much of an impact on the world, but I try my hardest in the areas I can influence which includes my urban yard.

So, it was fun to read the latest weblog from the National Wildlife Federation this morning touting the importance of allowing boneset, Eupatorium serotinum, to bloom. This white flower is blooming profusely in my yard right now; it's a plant not loyal to high quality areas, but along with the asters, goldenrods, virgin's bower, ageratum and the bristly sunflower hanging on, my yard has been a buffet to wasps (especially ichneumon wasps), bees, flies, butterflies, and spiders. The NWF article promoted the importance of small patch habitat such as yards to all suites of wildlife, especially pollinators. This late in the season, but still with warm temperatures, it's important to wildlife to keep one's wild garden wild. The goldfinches found my Echinacea seeds and all of the other birds who frequent my yard have found a veritable buffet, which is just as I had intended. I keep the birdbath filled and clean--with the pokeweed berries now in their prime, the birdbath often turns into water tinged with purple dye. I'm not taking down my pokeweed, nor my wildflowers going to seed, but keeping the birdbath clean and full.

In recent years, especially with the popularity of NWF's Backyard Habitat program, some research is underway measuring the direct impacts of naturalized habitat versus traditional yards with lawns and boxwood. I have seen at least one study, but it doesn't take any research to let me know that I have many birds, butterflies and other insects visiting my yard on a regular basis. The time is coming for my regular purchases of 40 lbs. of seed, blocks of suet, regular warming of the birdbath water, but for now, I'm enjoying the native display and hoping the wildlife I enjoy viewing in my yard are at least finding a habitable place to spend a few hours.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Homogenization, Strictly Observation

Driving south on Hwy. 54 towards Lake of the Ozarks two years ago in May, I first saw it--big stands of Princess Tree in full bloom on the roadside. This fast-growing species, Paulownia tomentosa, covered in pretty purple flowers each spring, is native to China and is a documented exotic invasive plant in the warmer climates of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. I first learned of Princess Tree from Arbor Day pamphlets that arrived in our mail in the late 1980s, circulated in an effort to encourage homeowners to plant trees, any trees, to provide shade. The flowers are pretty, almost like a purple Catalpa flower, and bloom on long stalks as the large ovoid green leaves come out to provide shade.

During my tenure in the Southeast Missouri Lowlands, I encountered Princess Tree in a lawn setting, planted surely because it's pretty and, again, fast-growing. The climate in the Bootheel ten years ago was reminiscent of Western Kentucky and Northern Arkansas, what with slightly less cruel winters, warmer temperatures and more rain than in the Osage River basin. As has been reported for several years now, the growing seasons and USDA planting maps have shifted north: folks in St. Louis can now grow camellias outside, friends in New Orleans are growing papayas, and the warmer climate has allowed me to grow kale year round. Not only have the gardening maps shifted due to warmer weather, but now a new group of southern exotic species are creating a foothold in the Ozarks. The warmer temperatures and milder winters have not just encouraged Princess Tree to explode around Lake of the Ozarks, seemingly overnight, but also the ornamental Pampas grass, the scourge of South Louisiana swamps, and Miscanthus, a common ornamental that is now invading glades around Branson.

I don't know how Princess Tree and Pampas grass with its huge white plume and vicious blades arrived in the Ozarks, but I see them frequently on roadsides. Just as I blinked one year and found an entire woodland filled with bush honeysuckle to a point that nothing else exists there, these southern invasive species seem to be thriving in what was once a too cold climate for them. I realize roadsides are not necessarily high quality ecosystems to begin with, but they can serve as vectors into intact systems. With so many exotic invasive species already in Missouri, I don't know how our ecosystems can deal with any more. But new ones are here and doing quite well.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Grapes for Sale!

Asters and goldenrods are starting to bloom, crisp air is moving in, and grape harvest is fully underway across the Ozarks. Drive along I-44 in St. James and see the quaint grape stands selling delicious Concords, grape pies, jam, and all kinds of grapey goodness. This is the year I am going to try my hand at making Norton wine (from juice--at this time I lack all of the expensive equipment to start from grapes). But for those with crushers, stemmers, and everything else needed to process grapes, Meramec Vineyards is selling Norton grapes for .75$ a pound, and Concord and Catawba grapes for even less. Phyllis' Norton wine from Meramec Vineyards is really quite nice and ages very well. I hope that when the day comes that I have my own equipment I'll find an equally good deal on Norton grapes. I picked up a gallon of frozen Concord juice and designer yeast, just waiting on Norton juice to start my own fermentation.

The awesome collaboration between Rolla's Public House Brewery and St. James Winery that resulted in a fantastic brewpub in the St. James Winery parking lot has also encouraged the brewery to experiment with grape juice in their beer making enterprise. The Brewmaster's Select Vignoles IPA sold out earlier this week, but rumor holds they will be making it again, as well as other grape-infused beers such as a Norton Stout (I just may drink a beer when that one comes out.)

Friday, August 26, 2016

Glades in August

I never tire of hiking through well-managed, high quality glades in Missouri. Earlier this week, I paid my third visit since April to a stellar dolomite glade in the Niangua Basin to see the beginning of the end of flowering periods. This glade and the adjacent woodlands were burned in January, and every visit since then I've seen increasingly more and more flowering plants in both the woodlands and the glade.

We are in the period of yellow composites, Rudbeckia missouriensis, the Silphiums, the late summer Helianthus occidentalis, blazing stars, all in full flower and serving as magnets for suites of pollinating insects. Unfortunately, I don't know my skippers well at all, but I know I recognized three different species on the brief, casual hike through the composites. Appropriately managed glades are in full bloom now, with the ladies' tresses orchids coming on soon. The woodland Spiranthes orchids are blooming (S. vernalis, especially) and the glade-specific species should be blooming in late September. This site is home to a true motherlode of S. magnicamporum, a glade-specific plant that numbers in the thousands on the dolomite glades here.

Busting through the understory and hiking through glades these days results in covering one's trousers, legs, ankles and abdomen in literally millions of seed ticks, little specks of brown insect life that causes unending itching and redness. Trousers with duct tape around the ankles, horrible chemical spray covering pantlegs and shirt sleeves is required. On Monday, I plan to set out into pristine woods with no trails to flag out firelines for the upcoming prescribed fire season. A heavily chlorinated swimming pool is a necessity after being covered in seed ticks but is unfortunately not in the cards on Monday night. A shower with a brisk scrubbing will have to suffice. Firelines must be flagged. Burn plans must be written. Preparations for the upcoming prescribed season must be made to maintain stellar places like this one.

Monday, August 22, 2016

August is Vignoles Month

It's very fitting that the Missouri Wine and Grape Board designated this sunny late summer month as a time to celebrate the highly diverse Vignoles. Harvest of this lovely white wine grape begins this week in some areas across the state, and wineries are offering special pairings to highlight the rich flavor of my second favorite Missouri white wine (Traminette is #1, Seyval Blanc is #3).

For the record, I very rarely buy white wine; even though there are many fine, supple dry whites in Missouri, I tend to spend my money on the dry reds. Since I don't have a refined palette for the dry whites, I can say that Vignoles reminds me most of the French whites I drank in summers in New Orleans: big, crisp, somewhat buttery (not like a Chardonel), more floral (but not quite so much as Traminette. Since I like flowers, I like Traminette above all the others), sometimes with notes of melon and even green apples. I generally like Vignoles with hard, strong cheeses like Asiago. My fellow Missouri wine-loving friend buys herself Nortons and Vignoles for her partner who tends to prefer the sweeter wines. It's a good gateway wine from sticky Muscat to the dry whites.

All of the rain this summer may make this year's vintage less concentrated as compared to, say, the droughty 2012. Grapes are fat and happy on the vines this August and we're one year away from the total eclipse that will be visible where I live where wine lovers will flock to the blufftop winery and enjoy bottles of Vignoles while watching the sky darken. Ste. Genevieve wine country will also be ground zero for the eclipse, so start booking reservations now....