“Japanese Knotweed does not deserve its bad reputation or give a damn about it either…” Somerville Cafe Blog shop Herbstalk and stalk Somerville gardens
If you’re anything like me, you live in the city, you don’t have a garden, but you’re an armchair garden enthusiast, meaning you enjoy the results of the work all those other city gardeners put in. On my neighborhood walks, I get my fix by squinting up through Japanese maple-leaves, I pluck the occasional flower off a stooping branch – and I appreciate the scent of a mature suburb in springtime when the gardeners work starts to pay off in armfuls of abundance.
So you can imagine my delight/awe/straight up nosy curiosity when I heard that the last weekend would be a double whammy of plant-related events in Somerville. Arts at the Armory hosted Herbstalk for the second year running, and the Somerville Garden Club held one of their occasional fundraising garden tours.
The Japanese Garden
Herbstalk and SGC’s events plucked members from either group (sorry) – so it was nice to do a post that covered both events – indoor and outdoor. It’s hard to believe that Herbstalk is only in its second year, as it was so packed with a variety of vendors and customers. Yes, it was an indoor event, with seated classes on aromatherapy and herbalism, and shopping in the hall, but there were also outdoor “get to know your neighbors” tours, which made foraging in gardens and public parks seem as classy as browsing the aisles of Wholefoods. Here are some things you might not know about some common plants, in my own words with the contributions of our guide Felix Lufkin:
Mugwort is in the Artemisia family with plants like sage. “It can be smoked or put under the pillow.” “It can make our dreams intense & visually colorful so that they often take place in outer space.”
Grapes: Grapes store sap in spring or summer that can be used for survival purposes if you happen to be stranded anywhere without food but with access to a grapevine.
Roses: Rose seeds are high in vitamin E and you can eat them. Rose Hips are particularly high in vitamin C and are used in commercial supplements.
Hostas: In Japan, Hostas are prized as a delicacy, and before they have opened they can be eaten.
Japanese Maple: Our guide describes their leaves as a “fractalized version of a maple” which “look nice in salads.”
Juniper: Again, very high in Vitamin C. Their berries take nearly two years to ripen and they are medicinal, stimulating the digestion.
Bergamot: edible, and tastes “like oregano dipped in burning metal”, according to our guide’s palette.
Mugwort: Mugwort is in the Artemisia family with plants like sage. “It can be smoked or put under the pillow”; “It can make our dreams intense & visually colorful so that they often take place in outer space”, says Felix.
Japanese Knotweed: According to our guide, Japanese Knotweed does not deserve its bad reputation or give a damn about it either, since it can survive anywhere, even growing out of car batteries in swamps, “It is not evil”, though “it cannot be fought with aggression.” It also has human-friendly properties as its roots can cure lyme disease, and its leaves can safely be eaten.
Our tour finishes up with a helpful list of references: Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus and Samuel Thayer’s Nature’s Garden or The Forager’s Harvest - and the basics of tree identification. The first step is to recognize the branching pattern of trees – opposite or alternate. The rarity of opposite branched trees eliminates some common species and makes identification easier.
The laid back men of Somerville are evidently not as concerned with stocking up for the love apocalypse as their women.
Kristin in her shade garden on Porter Street
The backyard music venue on Cedar Street
After the tour is over, we are free to disperse among the stalls, where I get sidetracked by pretty much every product, after stopping for a delicious vegetarian peanut noodle salad from Red Lentil. I learn that some herbalists have been doing this for as long as 22 years, such as Carol Joyce of White Buffalo Herbs. At Carol’s stall, two little baskets of love potions for men and women illustrate the difference between the sexes like a pithy New Yorker cartoon. Carol is all out of women’s love potions, though the little display basket is full of vials for men. Evidently the laid back men of Somerville are not as concerned with stocking up for the love apocalypse as their women.
I also stop by Sister Spirit Herbals,who make delicious-smelling botanical cosmetics in their kitchen – without them I’d have no idea that Shea Butter – an ingredient we take for granted in cosmetics – is often produced by women working in exploitative conditions. Sister Spirit imports their Shea Butter from a women’s co-operative in Togo called Agbanga Karite.
The Somerville Garden Club tour was a gentle reminder about Somerville’s main cosmetic difference from its sister, Cambridge: hills. Hiking up and down its undulating streets and avenues I managed to see a good cluster of gardens. My first stop was “The Menagerie” at Cedar Street. This was a small wedge-shaped space with grass, deck-chairs, grape-vine and chicken-coop , but it was a haven indeed. Khrysti Smith is known as “the chickenness” because she keeps chickens and educates about rearing them in a urban backyard setting. The backyard is also an informal music venue during the summer every second Monday, where Greg Klyma, a regular at the Armory lives and performs. Greg is playing June 22nd at the Armory with Mark Whitaker.
Lisa’s climber rose, Eden
Next I stopped at Porter Street, to look at a garden with a water feature and a 15 year old kiwi vine arbor, that is repaired lovingly and frequently by Scott. The vine develops small and smooth fruits, a variety of kiwi that apparently survives better in Northern climates. Then there was Kristin’s garden, a long cool alley of shade-plants. My last stop was a Japanese Garden which attracted much oohing and aahing. Were the owners inspired to create their garden out of reverence for Japanese style? No, the garden got its water features because of the necessity to innovate against the challenges of having a steeply sloped backyard. The first water feature was a pragmatic way of collecting the runoff water from a neighbor’s backyard – the second was added to balance the first. The platform under the treehouse was a way of consolidating the dirt left over from digging the first water feature. I pictured the development of the garden as being like a long-running game of Jenga, and Gerry Cronin laughed and agreed that it was a lot like that. Ironically, for a garden that was born through physical upheaval, Gerry wanted a garden that was low maintenance.
He was inspired by the Japanese garden in the MFA: “you don’t have to mow gravel” he explained. And yet the garden was as stylish as a carefully furnished room. Japanese style music piped out from the gate, red lanterns were hung across the deck, mirrors gave the illusion of additional wings beyond the hedgerows – even the neighbors’ back balconies, stacked up the slope, suggested a Japanese theme. Goldfish swam in the water and an ivy covered tree stump added an extra level to the garden with a platform treehouse. But just like Jenga, Gerry says they might well tear the garden down and start anew one day.“There’s always room for improvement” he says. Gardening is definitely a game for hardy perennials (I really mean that). Most of the gardens I saw were at least 15 years’ in the making.
The final stop on my tour was organizer Lisa’s Hawthorne Street garden. Lisa is a rose connoisseur. “Yes I do like roses”, she said modestly when I commented on the caliber of her rose garden. Her backyard was a dappled bower of elegant varieties – amongst others an Austin rose and a beautiful pale pink climber called Eden. She prefers cool silver/blue leaves to complement the shade. She moved into her house 20 years’ ago, and has been involved in the Somerville Garden club for about 15 years. She explains that the tour raises money for speakers’ fees at the Garden Club events. This is how the club keeps events free. And by the way, if you’re a Cambridge resident, you can join too.
Summer is the time when people start to venture out of doors, thinking about farmers’ markets, beach-trips and stuff like that. Judging by this weekend there’s no need to go on long trips seeking communion with nature, as hidden Somerville is blossoming right under our noses.