Anti-Inflammatory Measures

Turmeric is trending. The It (spice)girl of the moment. Like me, turmeric originates from India/the sub-continent. Growing up, its ubiquitous bright yellow presence in Indian cuisine was unremarkable and yet, it was unthinkable to omit it in a recipe.

It was only as a freshman in college, during a microbiology course, I learned about its bactericidal properties and its role consequently in food preservation and cosmetics. Suddenly, I understood how significant a spice this was. That my ancestors had discerned its importance so long ago was remarkable.

I shall not expound on the many superpowers attributed to turmeric because all that info is out there on the Internet. I myself use it regularly in cooking. It is a vital ingredient in my go-to tonic whenever I need to fortify myself – a strong, hot infusion of turmeric and fresh ginger. An ancient remedy but oh so au courant. Ha, I’m trendy by default.

Because of its brilliant hue, turmeric is easily adulterated. It therefore pays to be cautious about where one obtains it. Additionally, look for organically grown sources.

On my visit to the Mukta Jivan Orphanage this past Christmas day, I was given a bag of turmeric root. The rhizomes had been cleaned, boiled and dried. What remained was the grinding and sifting. At MJ, turmeric and all other produce are grown organically. It is for their own consumption and not commercial distribution.

I brought the bag of innocuous looking bits of dried roots to my father’s cook/culinary wizard Indira. She knew exactly what to do. Over the span of a morning, she ground up the roots, sifted carefully and produced a sizable bowl of vivid gold powder along with a pair of deeply stained hands. The aroma of turmeric is not overpowering but it is distinct. Such an amazing sight.

Whilst in Mumbai, I had the opportunity to visit a gated community of sorts. Located a couple of hours away from the city, it is a development of homes designed to be either second homes or retirement residences for the upper middle-class. This is a growing trend. Little oases in the midst of rugged, rural terrain. As contrived as they are, they are quite lovely once you’re inside those high walls. Attractive, large homes surrounded by well designed, well maintained lush greenery. An escape for the harried city dweller at many levels.

The one I visited is mindful of the environment and applies only organic methods. Water for the plants comes from a rain catchment. All the produce from the large, enclosed vegetable garden and the assorted orchards ( papaya, banana, almonds etc.,) are shared by the residents. I think this could be a good blueprint for communities everywhere and all new developments ought to incorporate such a plan. At a time when families are pressed for time and find it hard to fit in all the responsibilities of keeping a vegetable garden, shared or allotment gardens would be ideal. It will no doubt foster a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common philosophies, practices and produce. Children will learn about where their food comes from and enjoy the benefits of nature and an active community.

I wished I’d had more time to engage with the gardeners and learn further about their methods, challenges and such. Next time I will.

Back home in New York, I’m facing the reality of January. Cold and more cold. Possibility of snow later in the week. To bolster my spirits, the hyacinth bulbs cooling in the refrigerator since October’18, have been potted up. Watching the bulbs grow and anticipating the fragrant flowers will keep me in a positive state of mind. One cannot ask for more.

Turmeric!

Turmeric plants. The vegetable garden in the gated community.

The vegetable garden

Note the papaya trees just outside the fence.
A gourd left in the sun for the seeds to ripen

Banana grove

A residential garden

The terrain beyond
My hyacinths

NOTE: My participation in “Winter In America” at Gallery 114 continues. If you’re in the area, please visit!

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar




Breathtaking

I’ve just returned from a trip to India. A family reunion took me there and it was wonderful. Naturally, I also made sure to visit the children at Mukta Jivan Orphanage ( I shall be posting abut that on the Lucky Ones page soon). Overall, this was a time of connecting and reaffirming love and support. I am so grateful for it all.

However, ( you knew a ‘but’ was coming right?) there was something else that kept us company the whole time. The air quality in Mumbai was just awful. The haze that hung over the city could not be ignored as breathing in these conditions was hampered. It surprised me that people seemed unconcerned and even a marathon was held. When I said something about it, one person responded – “ One gets used to it and eventually, our lungs get stronger”! Yikes!

Meanwhile, we spent our time coping with runny noses, severe hacking, dry coughs and wearing masks when we went out. The air-purifier we used inside showed red ( poor air quality) all the time; At best it changed to purple briefly.

It cannot be emphasized enough that this is a serious problem and only getting worse. Globally.

I’m happy to be home and breathing significantly cleaner air. At the same time I ask, will this always be so? Not if we don’t do everything we can to make it so. Globally.

This is not a geographical or partisan or socioeconomic crisis. Every single one of us is responsible and affected.

I know I don’t need to elaborate further – you know to take action. Do something! Every effort makes a difference.

I’m not going to post any photos. Instead, I’m sharing two “Climate Change” poems I wrote in 2016 and 2011 respectively

Getting Dressed Down

Sans fur or feather
We dress and groom
In borrowed leather
simulated plumes

Petroleum skirts
pairing cork-wood pumps
Costly cotton
Skims shapely bumps

Decrying the heat
Denouncing the snow
Unexpected storms
Rage and blow

Plunder and pillage
for earthly looms
Shifts falling rain
loam to dunes

For rare material
We quest and lust
So our children inherit
mere diamond dust.

Climate Change

Kangaroo floods leap across miles
Yankee storms hit with power
Aztec earthquakes sacrifice young lives
Norse volcanoes conjure blinding smoke.

Sumatran tsunamis wash countless souls
Bantu droughts parch migrating throats
Peking skies mark mankind’s limit
Polar icebergs diminish penguin turf.

Climate change at full throttle.

Note: I’m thrilled to have a painting in the juried art show “Winter In America” .The exhibit runs January 3-February 2, 2019. If you’re in the area, I hope you will visit it.

1100 NW Glisan

Portland, Oregon 97209

503-243-3356

www.gallery114pdx.com 

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Peace On Earth And All That Jazz

It’s a time of celebration this week – joy, peace, love and goodwill. Are you feeling it? I’m not. There is just too much external noise distracting me. To be honest, I’m aware of being sorta unsettled and anxious. As though I’m waiting for calamity instead of calm and quiet. This is absolutely no way to be. So I’ve decided I wont.

And I’m going about it the only way I know how. By connecting to the earth. A simple stroll in a garden or the woods channels my attention to the present. I set off with a head cluttered with the news and state of the world but as I walk, a subtle shift occurs. At the beginning, I walk briskly to get my blood flowing. As I warm up, I draw deep breaths of the fresh, cold air and I become aware that my shoulders have begun to relax. As though a weight has been lifted.

My eyes take in the surroundings, The ribbons of sunlight cascading through the fretwork of bare branches above cast a radiant glow on the forest floor. I observe the squirrels making madcap dashes in seemingly random manner – it’s no wonder they forget where they’ve stashed their nutty treasures. The birds appear more organized and chatty and I get the feeling they communicate with each other to make whatever it is they’re doing more enjoyable. I can relate to that communal spirit.

Against the present starkness of the deciduous trees, the pines and firs take on the role of chief color givers. Their shades of green range from the blue-green to the yellow-green. The blue spruces to the variegated cedars. I understand their importance in the landscape much better now. They prevent the winter from looking bleak and foreboding. And after a snowfall, they are the ones to provide us with that quintessential image of the season. Picturesque and comforting.

I become so lost in my surroundings that it comes as a surprise that I’m almost back home. I feel like a new person. Uplifted and energized, I’ve rediscovered my true north, I’m ready to embrace the demands of the moment – that of taking pleasure in the company of family and friends. Renewing and reaffirming our bonds of love and friendship. In the end, this is all one has and all one wants. The rest is just noise. Tune it out.

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

This Unjealous Heart

I’m currently about as far removed from my garden as I could possibly be. In almost equatorial conditions, I’m feasting my eyes on plants that I couldn’t even remotely consider growing. Last week I was in Singapore and this week I’m basking in Phuket, Thailand. Yes, somebody has to live the tough life.

Everywhere I look I see the kind of specimens I only get to see in the conservatory at the New York Botanical Gardens. Things are lush and luscious here. It is also incredible hot and humid so don’t start envying me too much.

What I’m particularly delighted with is seeing plants growing as nature intended. Orchids emerging from the ground or from niches in trees and rocks rather than pots. The same with Birds of Paradise and Lobster Claw plants. The flamboyant flowers of the Tropics that we only get to see at the florist are thriving happily – they are as common as our asters and coneflowers. Frangipani trees festooned with flowers perfume the nights. The heat heightens the fragrances of all the plants.

The ultimate pleasure of such an experience, in my mind, is the wholehearted joy I can take in it without even a drop of envy. It is kind of like going to the museum and viewing masterpieces – I can be inspired and enraptured but I do not covet. The same is true here. As I cannot dream of growing these beauties back in my zone 6 garden in New York, I am not disheartened in any way.

This is so freeing. Unlike visits to gardens back home where one is prone to compare and contrast them to one’s own, there is no such pressure here. I feel neither inadequate nor greedy. I can simply observe and enjoy. Now there’s a state of mind I ought to seriously cultivate.

On that note, I leave you with some glorious images of flowers and a few rather impressive trees. This time next week, I’ll be back in my own garden. Yanking away at weeds no doubt.

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(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

Summer Nights

Summer nights are sensory experiences. Evoking our primal conncection to the natural world. Taking us back to a time when we lived by what was happening around us. Perhaps it is why we still feel the magic of summer nights – when we reestablish our place in the larger scheme of things.

Like me, I hope you too are taking every opportunity to savor these ephemeral, nocturnal pleasures in the garden.

Summer Nights

Wrapped in the thick air
heavy with heat
laden with moist
Watching fireflies
mimic the stars
against black velvet
Serenaded boldly
by tree frogs
and crickets
Fanned from on high
wings of bats
on purposeful sorties
While night moths
answer service calls
of moonflowers
and gardenias
Spicy notes of phlox
rise with the night
perfumed with clove,
oil of bergamot
essence of rose
Lulled into
well being
content to remain
greet the dew
of a new day.

Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Brugamansia flowers awaiting moths in the dark of the night.
Brugamansia flowers awaiting moths in the dark of the night.

 

Summer phlox

Summer phlox

 

White flowers illuminating the dusk in my friend Ron's garden.

White flowers illuminating the dusk in my friend Ron’s garden.

(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Inside Out

About a week ago, I had an experience that set my heart racing and seriously tied up my tongue. I met Dr. Oliver Sacks.
It was actually my second encounter with him. The first was very brief. But then, even if I met him a million times I’d be reduced to a blathering idiot – he has that effect on me. I have such a deep respect and reverence for the man.

Having read his many books and articles, attended some of his talks, listened to podcasts, avidly followed his newsletters and generally admired him for decades, I hold him responsible for affecting how I live. The word live is the key. Dr. Oliver Sacks is fully engaged in living. His curiosity and thirst to examine every aspect of this big, beautiful world is hard to match.

He observes and examines. He tries to understand or work out the mechanics of how things/people function. Then, he explains what he has learned or thought out to the rest of us, in language that is clear and easy to comprehend. His writings are seasoned with a wit that elicits laughter even as one learns a complex topic. Dr. Sacks is brilliant at exposing us to our own humanity and telling us that no matter what, it is all right to be just as we are. Reading him makes me feel smart. At least for a while.

For years I knew of Dr. Sacks as a neuroscientist but then I read his book the Oaxaca Journal. This was about going on a fern hunting expedition. Ferns? Turns out Dr. Sacks is passionate about them. Interestingly, that expedition was led by Dr. John Mickel, he who is godfather to my vertical garden. John once told me that whilst on that trip, every time the team took a break, Oliver Sacks sat by himself and wrote in his journal. He was shy and quiet. Soon after they got home and before John had written up his scientific papers on the discoveries made on the expedition, a package was delivered to him. It was the manuscript to Oaxaca Journal in which Dr. Sacks expounds on not just ferns but related topics like chocolate, culture and other earthly wonders in that part of the world! John jokes that he needn’t have bothered writing his own papers.
Just goes to show once again that great minds are invariably naturalists and/or plantsmen as well. Galileo, Darwin, Sacks …

Dr. Sacks takes big bites of life and chews each mouthful thoroughly. No matter what he does, he does so with almost an obsession. Then he tells us all about it. How our brains work explains how we feel and behave. What goes on inside manifests on the outside. This is true for anything.

The current status of his health is well known. The great man has terminal cancer. But, he does not ask for pity or even empathy. Instead, he shows us how to keep living. He is still writing, visiting friends and doing all that he can and wants to do. He continues to make visible the unseen and unknown.

So how has he affected my life? I’ve learned to remain curious about everything. To stay present, to pay attention and learn all that life teaches. In the garden, in relationships, in work both creative and mundane, in the ordinary, in the different, in the new and in the old. Nowhere am I more cognizant of Dr. Sacks’ instruction as in the garden when I’m always confronting the familiar in novel, new ways.

He presented me with a personally signed copy of his latest book Moving On – a memoir. It will be treasured for life. I’m about to embark on a journey into Oliver Sacks’ life and I’m tightening my belt. It promises to be a bumpy, glorious ride.

On the heels of meeting my hero, I saw the movie Inside Out – an absolutely wonderful film about our emotions. It is on neuroscience if you will! Coincidence? I think not. I do wonder if Dr. Sacks has seen it and what he has to say about it. I highly recommend you go see it!
For a neuroscientist’s take on the movie, click here.

To read about Dr. Oliver Sacks, his books and his blog, click here.

My first meeting with Dr. Oliver Sacks

My first meeting with Dr. Oliver Sacks

A collection of ferns at Dr. Mickels' garden

A collection of ferns at Dr. Mickels’ garden

My vertical garden of ferns and heuchera

My vertical garden of ferns and heuchera

My most recent encounter

My most recent encounter

 

(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Saving Face

Do you ever have that intense desire to completely do over an entire part of the garden? But before you can give in to this extreme act, sound reason gilded with just a trace of lethargy steps in? I hope you know what I’m alluding to because I’d hate to think I’m alone in madcap thoughts.

Each year about now when spring is transiting to summer and again, when fall is barely edging out summer, I can’t stand the front perennial beds. They look kinda meh! if you get my drift. The blooms of printemp that shone so gaily are dimming their lights but the flowers of summer have yet to hear their cue. There is no doubt a lush greenness present but the oomph is missing. In the broadcast world this would be described as dead air and something to avoid at all costs. In the garden design world this is not quite as serious but still a situation to prevent. If possible.

The problem is, nature has a mind of her own. No amount of careful planning will entirely eliminate the problem. In fact, my careful orchestration is happily ignored all too often. This year being no exception. Nothing followed anticipated patterns. It worked out okay except for now – unhappily, true to form, the perennial beds are pretty much doing nothing for my morale. I could use some annuals and maybe I will but, I’d still prefer to rely mostly on perennials.

I had high hopes for the rose on the front arch. Being late to bloom this season, for once, I guaranteed myself a seamless transition to summer. The arch would carry us till the phlox and acanthus made their appearance. But recent thunderstorms put paid to that dream. The cascade of soft pink roses now hang limp and tired, shedding petals resembling bits of brown paper.

Back to square one. There is nothing to hold ones attention in the front garden. The window boxes are trying but it is unfair to think they must carry the whole front. Clearly, something for this specific time is required. I’m flummoxed because in the past, everything I have planted for this purpose has turned traitor. They have all chosen an earlier or later time to bloom in my garden.

But, I’m not ready to surrender. I think I’m being challenged. If the garden has taught me anything, it is to never give up. As long as there is life, there is hope. A trip to the nursery is in short order. Stay tuned.

Perhaps I’ll run into some of you there?

The window boxes

The window boxes

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The beds are just all green. You see?

The beds are just all green. You see?

(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

Playing Cat And Mouse

The other day, just as I stepped out with the noble intention of tackling the weeds, I knew something was afoot. The birds were chattering at high decibels and appeared agitated. Just as I began to feel personally affronted, I spotted the neighborhood cat quietly making its way through the meadow to the stone bench where it likes to warm itself and observe the realm at the same time. Aha!

This black cat makes good use of its coloring. It lurks in the areas of dappled light making it difficult to notice. Clever. I don’t know who owns this feline and in principal have no strong objection to it trespassing on my property. I take the occasional dead mouse found around as its payment for entry. Quite appropriate.

Yet, I resent the way the cats presence upsets the birds. Its true that some of them don’t use any common sense and choose their nesting sites very foolishly. There are at the present, to my knowledge, at least four different pairs of birds tending to their young in the garden. Nature at work, circle of life and whatever else is all very well but the very thought of the eggs or babies in the nest coming under attack really bothers me. I’m irrational that way.

I got to thinking about the matter as I settled down to weed. Always a good activity to get the mind pondering on heavy topics like that. The conclusion is that I’m pretty much the prowling cat when it comes to hunting down the mousy weeds. For all I know, they too shriek at the sight of me. Obviously at a wavelength not perceived by my delicate human ears.

Given that there really isn’t anything natural about gardening and the whole endeavor is contrived, makes me, the gardener, the biggest bully of all. It is all about imposing my will. I exercise my dominance ruthlessly and the result is the garden I’m proud to call my own. Maybe using only organic measures and increasing the native plant population makes me a tyrant with a conscience but a tyrant nevertheless.

So coming back to the cat, I’m resolved to let it be. Live and let live. I hope it feels the same way.

Can you see the black cat in the garden?

Can you see the black cat in the garden?

Babies in a nest

Babies in a nest

IMG_3912(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

The Rain Giveth And The Rain Taketh Away

We need rain! I’ll wager you said that at least once this season. Despite all that snow in winter, thus far, it has been an all too dry spring. Hence watering the garden has been a chore that took precedence in my neck of the woods. The emerging growth needed hydration if they were expected to put on any kind of show in the fullness of time. On the days we were blessed with rain, were happy ones – nothing like a good soak to replenish the spirit of the place. The plants really did look much better

The rain barrel took a while to get filled and is now fulfilling its purpose handily. As grateful as I was for rain, I must admit that while the foxgloves looked stunning, I secretly didn’t want any rain to beat them down. It was kinder to water them at the base with the hose.

And then, my early peonies which by the way, were late this year, began to bloom. I just knew right then we were in for thundershowers. It never fails. Peonies poised to look spectacular, time to literally rain on their parade. The result is invariably a miserable, soggy mess. So once again, I dutifully ran out to cut all the flowers in bloom before the skies lashed out.

The house looked rather festive with masses of blooms all over. Smelled good too. For perhaps three days. Then came the great fall out. I could hear the petals being shed. It’s a messy business and one I dislike attending to. The flowers last much longer on the plants. Yes, I do flame the fresh cut stem ends but it only seems to extend the bloom by a day or so. In my experience, if one wants peonies indoors, better to bring in buds that are just starting to flower – watch them slowly open and then linger on a bit once fully bloomed.

The American wisteria began blooming on time and the roses were rather late. So there emergence has coincided and the effect is quite delightful. But of course, just as I’m contemplating a day of painting under the wisteria covered gazebo, it has to ….. wait for it, … rain!

And so the cycle goes. Rain to make the plants grow. Rain to spoil the floral show. Sigh.

Wisteria

Wisteria

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Peonies

Peonies

'Heritage' rose

‘Heritage’ rose

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Bonica rose

Bonica rose

Gathering peonies before the storm

Gathering peonies before the storm

(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

A Walk On The Wild Side

Last week, I took a walk that was all pleasure and wonder at every step. If ever there was a way to escape the world and still be completely present in the world, this was it. I was treated to a guided tour of Wildflower Island at the Teatown Lake Reservation in Ossining, NY. Guided by Leah Waybright Kennell, the curator of this magical isle, I learned how much there is to see and delight in if only one knew where and how to look.

As gardeners, we tend to focus on the showy and/or dramatic. All too often, we forget that beauty also resides in the diminutive and shy. Tiny flowers expressing their enthusiasm on ground hugging stems of Canadian Mayflower. Or bashful Chrysogonum virginianum permitting sweet glimpses of its sulphur yellow blooms.

Walking to the accompaniment of a rich chorus of birds, I saw yellow lady’s slippers skipping around while their more rare pink cousins tip-toed quietly. Hummingbird columbines shone like small flames and red Silene virginica darted in and out of the spring growth that spread all around.

Leah pointed out so many plants that I was not familiar with. Wonderful natives that ought to be included in our gardens and woodlands. Her love and passion for the plants in her care is infectious and her knowledge of them is plain impressive. I’m inspired and determined to get to know more of these plants and invite them into my garden.

My ‘meadow’ is perfect for Hypoxis hirsuta, Zizia aurea and several more of the wildflowers. I already have Anemone canadensis, Arisaema triphyllum, Rubus odoratus, Myosotis sylvatica, Taraxacum officinale, Camassia quamash and some others. Adding the aforementioned will prolong bloom time in this part of my garden. As such, along with the myriad bulbs in its midst, the meadow only blooms through spring. I would love to have summer and fall blooming plants here to properly sustain all the wild life it draws.

My meadow also supports Ajuga and Viola odoratus. Two rather attractive but invasive aliens. To be rid of them is near impossible and frankly, I’d miss them. They add a real dose of brilliance to the spring show. I have been somewhat successful in containing them to only this part of the property. Any such plant found elsewhere is ruthlessly removed.

If you live in the Tri-state area, I strongly encourage a visit to Teatown. A tour of Wildflower Island is possible only by appointment and you get a highly knowledgeable guide to lead your eyes to all the gems that are nurtured there. It is a comfortable walk and takes only however long it takes you to get your fill of the beauty and variety of our unsung, wild natives. There are always things to see but spring and the second half of summer have the most in bloom. I expect to walk with Leah many times this year!

This ramble was one of the best hour and a half I ever spent. A mindful meditation like no other.

Note: I’ve used the botanically correct names mostly because many of the common names are the same as some non-native species. I did not want to confuse those looking to get the native plants.

Yellow lady's slipper. Cypripedium acaule.

Yellow lady’s slipper. Cypripedium acaule.

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Pink Lady's Slippers. C. calceolus

Pink Lady’s Slippers.
C. calceolus

Zizia aurea

Zizia aurea

Hypoxis hirsuta

Hypoxis hirsuta

Hummingbird columbine

Hummingbird columbine

Silene virginicum

Silene virginicum

Chrysogonum virginianam

Chrysogonum virginianum

(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar