The Canny Gardener

how to grow, cook and use plants, plus some philosophy!


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A bitter sweet experience

Bitter gourd or karela (in India), is a unique vegetable-fruit that can be used as food or medicine.  As the edible part of the plant Momordica Charantia, it is considered the most bitter among all fruits and vegetables.  My children hate it but I’ve persuaded them to eat it. It has such a bitter taste which is difficult to acquire easily. So why would anyone eat such a vegetable?

In traditional Indian medicine, bitter gourd has used for a range of diseases, including colic, fever, burns, chronic cough, painful menstruation, skin conditions including wounds and assist childbirth.  In parts of Africa and Asia, the bitter gourd is used prevent or treat malaria and viral diseases such as measles and chicken pox. The plant grows well in the tropical climate and is found in Indian grocery stores in the West.  However, people are not aware of its amazing properties when they look at the strange warty surface of the gourd- indeed it is neither attractive to look at or to eat.

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Fresh bitter gourd which can sliced thinly and eaten with lemon and salt but don’t eat too much of it- mild abdominal pain or diarrhoea can result

But research has proved that it has amazing medicinal properties- including fighting Type-2 diabetes and cancer.  In January 2011, the results of a four-week clinical trial were published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology , which showed that a 2,000 mg daily dose of bitter melon significantly reduced blood glucose levels among patients with type 2 diabetes, although the hypoglycemic effect was less than a 1,000 mg/day dose of metformin.  The gourd contains at least three active substances with anti-diabetic properties, including charanti, which has been confirmed to have a blood glucose-lowering effect, vicine, an insulin-like compound known as polypeptide-p and lectin. Lectin is an appetite suppressant that reduces food intake and consequently thought to be a major factor behind the hypoglycemic effect that develops after eating it. In clinical trials in the USA show that extracts from bitter gourd can kill breast cancer cells and prevent them from growing and spreading.

Bitter gourd can be taken in several forms- a fresh fruit (squeeze some lemon juice and sprinkle salt), juice, and the seeds can be added to food in a powdered form. In traditional Bengali foods, it is eaten fried with turmeric and salt- this makes it quite palatable.  It can also be boiled with the rice, then the gourd eaten with some salt.  Some of the bitterness is lost this way.  Fresh or dried and made into tea- the Japanese like it this way and the tea is actually not bad at all- much of the bitter taste is gone especially with a teaspoon of honey in it.

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Fried bitter gourd with turmeric, chillies and salt.

Alternatively, bitter melon extract can be bought as a herbal supplement in health food shops. But because the gourd reduces blood sugar, the dose will need to be watched carefully and it is best to start with a small amount.

But considering everything it is an amazingly versatile medicinal plant. I’m trying to grow some from the seeds I’ve saved when summer comes and let you know how that goes!

 


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A sustainable present for the home

This Christmas a lot of tinsel, wrapping paper and cards will make their way to you via many different routes.  Tinsel is not recyclable (so I reuse the tinsel that I actually found 12 years ago on the street) and any wrapping paper that doesn’t stay crumpled up, is not recyclable (try crumpling a part of it and see).  Each card takes about 140 kgs of CO2 to make and send- enough for two cups of tea.

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One of my cards made out of the box that my Panettone came in!

For years, I have been using the same plastic Christmas tree and its decorations so it is as sustainable as I can get.

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Our 12 year old Christmas tree!

I generally believe that living plants should stay living, in its natural habitat but terrariums are another thing. Especially during cold and wet days, it is quite nice to do indoor gardening!

This year, instead of buying flowers,  I made a terrarium and a planted pot to decorate the Christmas table.  Here is the step by step guide to both (which are slightly different to what you will find elsewhere).  So first the things you need-

  • Activated charcoal (from an aquarium or pet shop)
  • Pebbles and rocks (I had some and bought some from the pet shop and washed them carefully)
  • Moss (I got these from the pots outside)
  • Different plants- I bought a fern (asplenium), a plant with colourful leaves(Fittonia Skeleton) and an orchid (Dendrobium Berry Oda)
  • A glass bottle (I had a leaky one which I’ve used)
  • packets of desiccator usually found with food
  • Any decorative things- I had some sea shells, sticks, and bigger rocks
  • Tools which included a newspaper to cover the table, a cloth to wipe, a wood spoon to tap soil and place the plants inside the bottle, secateurs, and a plastic funnel (the one I used was a leftover from an old dishwasher)IMG_0678.jpg

The first step was to wash the bottle thoroughly. Once it was dry, I put in the desiccators first and sprinkled some charcoal around it.  Then I put in the washed pebbles, following it up with some more activated charcoal.  One advantage of choosing colourful rocks was that the charcoal doesn’t look too out of place.IMG_0688

Instead of buying more soil, I used the ones in the pots- they were were more than enough.  I put in the soil next.  All my plants were quite big, so it I had to divide them up. The Fittonia was easy to do but the fern and the orchid were hard.  I looked up various articles on how to do this on the internet but I’m still not sure about the orchid (which was the most expensive thing to buy!).  Time will tell if these plants will survive although I’ve followed the instructions.  Upon reflection, my advice will be to buy the smallest possible plants which will grow into bigger ones and are also easy to handle. On the cons of that, you will need to buy enough potting soil.

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Dividing the orchid was difficult!

IMG_0689Planning the inside is also an art- you don’t want it to be overcrowded but to look well managed.  The plants need space to grow and breathe. So I have placed the plants well apart as the orchid was pretty big.IMG_0686

There was enough soil and plants to make another pretty pot, so I did that using all the leftovers.  This is what it looks like.IMG_0685

IMG_0697 2.jpgMerry Christmas and happy holidays!

And here are some ideas from Tom Dixon Studios for some fun terrariums (they don’t need many plants only a sense of humour and creativity!)

 

 


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From the muddy pond, arises the amazing Lotus flower

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The Lotus flowers at Kew Gardens, London

The lotus flower grows, which is an aquatic perennial, in muddy ponds all over South East Asia. But the flowers are offered to the gods and kings, despite such humble origins.  That a muddy dirty pond should give rise to such a beautiful and majestic flowers- a flower that is the national flower of a country, India- is not a contradiction.  In Buddhism, the lotus flower is held up as a symbol of how one can transform life’s trials and tribulations into beauty, compassion and wisdom.

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Worshippers in Kandy, Sri Lanka with the white lotus

The lotus flower is also unique in the sense that seeds and flowers are to be found almost simultaneously in it, as a metaphor for the Buddhist belief that cause and effect are to be found together.

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White and purple lotus flowers on sale at a stall, Kandy, Sri Lanka

The lotus flower is also held up a symbol of longevity. Seeds of a lotus flower which bloomed 1300 years old in a lake in northeastern China  ago were made to flower. The lotus flowers are to be found in ancient Egyptian murals as well as many countries of Asia- China, India, Japan and Korea- testifying to the universal sense of wonder that one experiences when seeing them.  Now they are grown all over the world.

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My friend’s terrace where he grows the lotus flower in a small container

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Photo of my friend’s lotus flower

So next time you see a lotus flower, enjoy its beauty but also think about the various metaphors associated with it that might help you in life!

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Lotus flowers in a tea estate, Sri Lanka


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Life after death

Recently at Kew Gardens, there was an exhibition called ‘Life in death’ which featured an installation made of dried flowers, itself inspired by garlands found with mummies in Egypt. There was a solemnity and dignity about the work, while reminding us about the fragility and beauty of life.  I was immensely touched by this exhibition by Rebecca Louise Law, an installation artist based in London.

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It also stirred up my childhood memories of working with seeds and pressed leaves and flowers.  Fresh flowers can be fleeting joy but correctly preserved, flowers can give pleasure for a long time as the garlands from the Egyptian tombs show.   I try to bring back flowers which are meant to be thrown out after just a few hours in an event- such a waste not just of the flowers but also the artistry that made that bouquet.  Recently, I was attending an event with a lovely bouquet at my table made of white or pale flowers. It reminded me of both life and death.

I brought the bouquet back home and after a couple of days, the flowers started to dry up. Normally I would have thrown the entire bunch in the compost but these struck me as having a touch of fragile beauty, a whiff of life with a whiff of death about them.  I photographed them before it went on for composting. Here are the results-

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I hope these two encounters with dried flowers will rekindle that spark I used to have for them!


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Coconut husk compost

I have just started using coconut husk compost for my spring/summer planting.  First of all, I have to comment on how easy it was to transport and use.  I didn’t have to lug a heavy bag of compost on the bus- the compost comes a brick sized light block.  I took it out of the paper wrapping (which was recycled unlike the usual compost which comes in a plastic bag and it is difficult to find places that recycle them), then put the entire brick into a bucket on a day when I knew it was going to rain heavily.

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So when the bucket was full of water, the coconut compost expanded to fill the bucket (one block makes 9 litres of compost). I could then use it to fill my baby bath tub planter which I found abandoned.

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I had used up the winter offerings of dried shrubs and leaves as a composting material, on which I lay the coconut husk compost. I spread some seeds on the compost and then spread a thin layer of the coconut husk on that. The coconut husk compost is easy to work with, unlike the conventional compost.  My seeds are now sprouting and I will keep you updated on how the plants do.


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Drawing plants

Even if you think you can’t draw or paint, it is a good habit to have. Drawing plants is a very easy thing to start with.  They don’t move or need a rest.  You can practice on them for as long as you like before progressing on the more difficult subjects.  But many well known and skilled artists also used painted flowers, vegetables and trees.  So you are in good company.  Van Gogh’s sunflowers is one of the best known flower painting, painted in his idiosyncratic style-

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(credit: Wikipedia)

You can use flowers and plants to develop your own style and experiment with colours, mediums and textures.  Here are some of my own work using water colours, pencils and even cherry juice.  They won’t be critical of your attempt at their portrait!

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the most expensive and dangerous flower

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(print from Wikipedia)

In the 17th century Netherlands, arose the ‘Tulip mania’ when people believed that investing in tulips would make them rich.  Plants grow and flower- so what was there to lose?  Tulips originated from Eurasian and North African genus of perennial, bulbous plants in the lily family with around 75 wild species. The name ‘Tulip’ is reputed to come from a distortion of the word in Persian for turban, as reference to the shape of the flower.

The most expensive of the tulips was ‘Semper Augustus’, considered to be the most beautiful of all flowers and a pinnacle of achievement from the breeders.  Even before the ‘Tulip mania’, a single Semper Augustus bulb was said to have been sold for 5,500 guilders, reaching the dizzy  heights of 10,000 guilders in 1637, just before the crash.  In the 17th century, the annual earnings for a worker would have been around 150 florins, so 10,000 guilders would have been a huge sum of money.  But these flowers did not make the poor richer but as it were- it was to make the rich poorer. By the time the market for tulips collapsed in February 1637, Nicolaes van Wassenaer, a chronicler of the period, relates that only a dozen examples of Semper Augustus existed, all owned by a single individual.

The tulip also hid an unusual secret. It’s extraordinary beauty of blood red streaks across its ivory white petals was due to a virus.  This virus ‘breaks’ the single block of colour thereby streaking the petal and also added a stunning striation of yellow and red.  But in the meanwhile the plant is increasingly weakened by the virus. So the virus not only made it a ‘short lived’ beauty but also made it difficult to propagate, thereby naturally ending its genetic line. The famous Semper August bulb no longer exists except in some paintings of the Old Dutch masters. Instead we now have tulips with healthy blocks of colour with a few striated varieties.  This photo below was taken during the Tulip festival at Eden, Cornwall. Perhaps the lesson here is that not everything that looks beautiful is good for us.

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