Environmental Artist, Activism Protect Nature

Patterson Clark’s least favorite invasive plant is Japanese stilt grass. That’s because he hasn’t figured out how to use it in his art. Boiling it yields weak brown ink. Its fibers don’t make for strong paper. It’s not even good for fuel. “It got over here as packing material. If that’s your best use, you’re a pretty sorry little plant,” he said wryly.

I met Clark, a hyper-local plant patriot and environmental artist, over coffee, a brown brew whose use no one questions. American country music played in the background as he spoke about his mission to rid the world—at least the wooded area around his studio—of alien weeds. With authority and training from the National Park Service, he frees native species by harvesting invasive plants in a section of Washington, DC’s Rock Creek Park. Then he makes art out of them.

By day, Clark creates science graphics for the Washington Post. So think Clark Kent and Superman—for nature. Even their names are half the same.

Back in Arkansas, our Clark majored in biology, a broader field than his father’s botany. After studying conceptual art and painting as a graduate student at the California Institute of the Arts, he got caught up in the art of journalism.

“Visuals for newspapers must relate to a horizontal demographic. They have to appeal to people from a lot of different backgrounds. Fine art is oriented in the opposite direction. It has more of a vertical appeal, with a narrow audience, generally with an education in art. So I was won over by the egalitarian pursuit of journalism and focused my energies on that.” For a good while, he did op-ed illustrations for the Arkansas Gazette and Miami Herald. Until recently, he wrote the Urban Jungle column for the Post.

His superhero cape, or smock, was thus infused with environmental and social justice. By now, it’s well stained with the blood, or sap, of enemy plants.

Fine Invasive Art

Unlike stilt grass, most invasive species don’t flummox Clark. His Web site, Alienweeds, features not only finished pieces, but also the botany, chemistry, and environmental activism behind his art. Some of it’s quite complicated. For pigments, there’s Amur, or bush, honeysuckle, which yields turquoise, and leatherleaf Mahonia, which makes fluorescent yellow. To get purple, he crushes Asiatic dayflower, whose beautiful blue petals burst forth at dawn.

Out of white mulberry trees, Clark makes a bright, tough paper, perfect for prints. Paper mulberry, traditionally used in Japanese washi, is easier to harvest, but the pulp dries into a cream color, isn’t as brilliant as the stock he gets from its cousin. Armed with bamboo pens, porcelain-berry brushes, Norway-maple woodblocks, and other homemade tools, Clark minted “weed currency” out of his inks and papers. He determined the denominations by the number of invasive plants in each.

For carving, a favorite is Callery pear, whose blooms whiten the margins of highways come spring. Its well-known hybrid, the Bradford pear, hardly stayed sterile. Look nearly everywhere in forty-two U.S. states, and you’ll find Ailanthus, the so-called Tree of Heaven, rightly dubbed the “stink tree.” It contains a ton of water and tends to warp, check, and cup. But once its honey-colored wood stabilizes, Clark can plane and carve it to reveal its brown grain. Like Irish ivy (not to be confused with English ivy), boiling it drives him from the house for the funk.

Bad Plants

Both species are evil-smelling, evil-doing varmints of the plant kingdom—according to most environmentalists. And we humans are in part responsible for the infestations. Yes, every species has a use and, certainly, a right to exist, somewhere. Many are quite attractive. But what seems like a good green introduction in one era proves disastrous later on.

Take Ailanthus again: American botanists found it standing tall on Chinese temple grounds, alone, it turned out, because its roots released a noxious chemical that retarded the growth of surrounding plants. Ditto here, where, unlike most plants, it thrives on road salt and knocks out every native around it. If you whack back its branches, even its young trunk—bam—it comes back with a vengeance. Never mind all the seeds.

Invasive plants breed like rabbits. They spread quickly, often with little interference from hungry animals and diseases. Their weaponry includes runners and rhizomes and countless survivalist seeds with myriad methods for dispersal. Although native animals prefer to dine on indigenous species, they do eat invasives and poop the pips.

Birds drop them, while mammals amble about with pods stuck to their feet and fur. Kernels wedge in our shoes and dangle from our tractor blades. They muck up our mulch. Once mature, the invaders degrade ecosystems by competing with native plants for resources and pollinators. Rare species disappear. In no time, diverse landscapes turn into manic monocultures.

Clark removes the troublemakers. “My first act is always one of environmental restoration.” Usually, other non-natives grow in the spaces he frees, but some local wildflowers will take down stilt grass, unless deer devour them first. The Park Service has its own invasive-plant treatment programs. He can’t interfere by, say, sowing native seeds.

Invasives Anyone?

Like other environmentalists, Clark doesn’t favor using gasoline-powered tools and herbicides to manage the bad guys. “There’s a fellow in North Carolina who uses the Boer goat, a meat goat. He takes them into kudzu patches, and they fatten themselves up on the vine. They love it. He just keeps hammering with the goats until he exhausts the kudzu, without using a lot of poison or disrupting the ground. Why not provide food for people?” Japanese, who can claim kudzu as their own, and, increasingly, Americans in the Southeast make jellies, tea, even noodles from it.

Clark is an invasivore, too. He eats the grape-like, blue berries of leatherleaf Mahonia, which are loaded with vitamin C. Then there are the raspberry-ish wineberries, sold at posh farmers’ markets. Mulberries, the dark ones with native red genes, are tasty. They’re juicier than pure white mulberries but not as sweet, according to Clark. Garlic mustard, before it bolts, cooks into a delicious winter green. Pair it with a slab of invasive feral hog, deer, or Canada goose—if you’re into meat. In that case, best to slug some Mahonia juice first: like other members of its family, it contains berberine, an antimicrobial.

Educational Outreach

When hunting down art supplies (or foodstuffs), dog walkers and park goers sometimes spot Clark. He estimates that one out of ten people asks him what he’s doing. “I tell them what I’m up to. Mainly, they give me a wide berth. Dogs get weirded out by me and start barking. So people finally come over and put their dog on a leash. Sometimes they’re curious.” More receptive are the Weed Warriors, gardeners, scientific and botanical illustrators, environmentalists, and art and science students to whom he speaks regularly. Nurserymen, still intent on selling homeowners some of the nasties, haven’t asked him to share.

Right now, he’s working on a calendar for the American Printing History Association. He’s producing 136 sheets of paper for the month of May and designing an image to print with verse by his sister, a poet. In September, he’ll take off for SUNY/Fredonia to deliver a series of lectures on art and invasives.

Unlike Clark Kent, though, Patterson Clark rarely flies. Environmental artists and activists like him don’t like fossil fuels. But they do drink caffeine. So powered by an Americano with extra shots, he bade me goodbye to return to his day job. Like Superman, he was ready to save the forest floor with his handsaw, to make art from the vanquished.

Still Blocked? Embrace Nature

Sometimes practicing an art indoors just isn’t enough to unblock your writing. You have to take your drawing, your singing—your mind—outdoors. Imitate branches blowing in the breeze till you dance yourself to a sane standstill. Defer to the air. Put aside the pad and pencil, the poem notes on the “comely beetle, fair of feet.” Defer to the ladybug. Capture nothing. Let your creativity, your intellect meld slowly, higher into nature. Become the wind, the tree, the insect. Find your relative nothingness. Marvel wordlessly in place, or gently walking.

Embrace nature. Cleanse your thoughts of word cholesterol. Unblock, simply.

Easier said than done, especially when you live downtown and labor in a drywall square before an un-nature-al machine. Perhaps you gave up your car years ago and cannot meet hiking clubs at trailheads miles away. Or you sensibly fear strolling alone and spirit-full through the woods. Maybe your neighbors have claimed all nearby urban garden plots five years out. You may dislike zoos and have limited space for houseplants. You’re definitely past it for playgrounds, green or otherwise.

What to do? How to engage nature’s curative silence?

Try as I might, I can’t come up with much of a method this time. No one can jam nature onto worksheets. It’s where it should be—beyond our ken. In its time, its way, it will knock words from the brains it gave us. Separate the good ones from the bad, with or without aid from the arts. We only have to make ourselves available. Outside.

But we can push it … just a bit.

Whether you set out with an easel, a songbook, or not, try some of the following activities to quiet yourself. Pick one from each category. They’re meant for the apartment-dwelling adult with access to a city park, if not a forest. They’re meditative alternatives to the family-oriented, more involved suggestions in the back of Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, which inspired my interview with Robert Zarr.

Earth

  • Pick up a rock. Who lives underneath? Replace it thoughtfully.
  • What kind of rock did you pick up? Are there others like it around you?
  • What does the rock smell like? The soil coating it?
  • Go out late on a clear night. Can you find Venus?
  • Go out midday. What kind of clouds do you see?
  • Which way is the breeze blowing? Is it friendly or frightening?
  • Any precipitation? Take off your hood. How does it feel or taste?
  • If your park features a creek, skip a stone. Avoid braining the fish!
  • How does the light play under the trees or your legs, crossed on a park bench?
  • Can you find a mushroom, another fungus, lichen, or a yellow slime mold?

Plants

  • Pick a tree. Make it your favorite. Sit beneath it at different times. Look up.
  • Play with a stick, as you see children do. Who’s looking?
  • Visit a tree you planted as a tiny tot or testy teenager. How it has grown!
  • Identify trees by their bark or leaves. App away or bring a guide!
  • How many colors and shades can you find on blossoming trees come spring?
  • How many colors can you see in the leaf duff under your feet, summer and fall?
  • Feel moss. Which side of the tree is it growing on?
  • In midsummer, pick a wild onion, one standing tall apart from dogs. Taste it.
  • Find one wildflower, one “weed,” one ornamental, and one invasive species.
  • Who’s pollinating the flowers around you? Bees? Butterflies? Beetles?

Animals

  • Look up at the trees. Count nests in the winter. Find burrows in the ground.
  • Go out early. Listen for birds. Who’s making the music?
  • Find a feather. Look at its amazing structure. Who wore it?
  • Watch a squirrel bury nuts or find a stash. What a unique form of intelligence!
  • If two squirrels are chasing each other, ask yourself why. Wait for an answer.
  • Do you see animal tracks? A raccoon’s? Who else has been about?
  • Where do garden spiders build their webs? Is an owner just out of view?
  • What lives in the cracks in the pavement? How many anthills can you find?
  • Who lands on the back of your hand? How does it feel or look?
  • At the end of summer, listen for katydids and crickets. Which is which?

After you fool around a while, sit or lie down on the ground, in the dirt. After all, copywriting and nature are messy processes.

Wait. Listen. Let time pass. Why ever not? Find yourself under nature’s spell. Embrace it.

Then, go inside. Sit before your computer. Touch the keys. Make music with them. You’ll be amazed at your new verbal powers, your hidden “nature.”

***

Add an outdoor activity below or on Twitter. You’ll often find us under #environment.

And, yes, scientists have documented nature’s positive effects on grownups’ health. That’s subject matter for a future post.

Pediatrician, Parks Improve Child Health

Whenever he can, Dr. Robert Zarr takes a lunchtime stroll to a nearby park to commune with his favorite tree, watch children play with sticks and acorns—to practice what he preaches. Zarr is a pediatrician at Unity Healthcare, a clinic in northwest Washington, DC, and one of the brains behind the DC Park Prescription Program (DC Park Rx). Inspired by the writings of Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, he and a growing number of colleagues prescribe nature to inner-city children who live with obesity, asthma, anxiety, and depression. From personal and professional experience, Zarr knows that just twenty minutes spent in green space can improve health. He’s also convinced that children treated with parks will become adults who steward the environment.

Success Stories

On a hot, humid day typical of summer in the U.S. capital, I joined Zarr on a bench in Meridian Hill Park to talk about his cutting-edge work in environmental health, or environmental healing. As he noshed on a healthy dish of okra, he told the story of a little girl now five or six years old. Her parents brought her to him because they were concerned about her inability to sit still at home and her frequent temper tantrums. Unlike many doctors, he didn’t prescribe a medicine or lab test, and he didn’t refer them to a psychiatrist. Instead, he asked how she spent her weekends. They confessed she remained indoors the whole time. He explained that she might feel better after unstructured play in the woods. Would they be willing to take her to Rock Creek Park? Let her roam and listen to birds for two hours on Saturday and two hours on Sunday? They agreed. During the follow-up visit, he deliberately didn’t ask them what happened. Toward the end of the appointment, they volunteered that the park prescription had worked. She was getting into far less trouble, could focus, and sleep much better. She was a different person.

Zarr is full of moving anecdotes. He worked with one young woman who was concerned about her weight. Together, they changed her long route to school on public transportation. She agreed to walk the last leg of the trip. Then, they added time in a park to her schedule. Her weight plummeted, and her confidence rose so much that she pursued soccer camp in the summer. She told her story on National Public Radio.

Why Park Prescriptions?

A park prescription can lead to frequent, evermore complicated encounters with nature. A child who picks up a stick with great trepidation the first time in the forest builds a tree house several months later. Over time, Zarr contends, a generation now deprived of the outdoors will no longer suffer from Louv’s nature-deficit disorder.

Right now, one in three American children are overweight or obese. Seven million have asthma, and close to six million have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Approximately, 3,600 young people are diagnosed each year with type-2 diabetes. Over recent decades, children have lost 25 percent of playtime and 50 percent of unstructured outdoor activity. “We’re now very much a sedentary culture. Children aren’t moving. There’s been a culture shift from moving to sitting,” Zarr said.

DC Park Rx

That’s why he got moving. DC Park Rx is a community initiative of health providers and foundations, the National Park Service, DC Department of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Social Services, National Environmental Education Foundation, American Academy of Pediatrics, and George Washington University, where Zarr teaches public health. Across the United States, there are other programs, all part of the National Park Service’s Healthy Parks, Healthy People. It drew inspiration from a similar program in Australia, where healthcare providers actually donate a percentage of their earnings to preserve and maintain green space. The DC Park Rx database went up in July 2013; it now lists 380 District parks. Zarr and his colleagues have written over 500 prescriptions on bilingual English and Spanish prescription pads.

Last year, he finished a study of approximately 400 children for whom he prescribed one or more parks for three months. On average, the patients spent twenty-two more minutes a day and six more days a year outdoors and in physical activity than other children. Next year, Zarr hopes to show that nature prescriptions lead to statistically significant decreases in overall weight, body mass index, blood pressure, and diabetic measurements like hemoglobin levels. He’d also like to document fewer visits to emergency rooms and less use of medicines by asthma and mental health patients.

For Nature and People

But does nature benefit from Park Rx and comparable programs? The question can touch a nerve in conservationists, Zarr admitted. After all, organizations like the Nature Conservancy and Green Peace struggle to lessen the human impact on the environment to protect other species and their habitats. “This would be,” Zarr said, “a fascinating time to take health advocates and environmental activists and put them in the same room to come up with a consensus about how we can create a healthier population and planet. I’m of the opinion we can do both.” Zarr has had good support from local and national park services. “Park Rx doesn’t exist only to decrease the burden of chronic disease. It’s intricately linked to conservation efforts. If we don’t get kids to appreciate a tree, we’re in big trouble.” Today, most environmentalists worldwide are over fifty and white; they don’t reflect the future. Zarr, not quite fifty and fluent in Spanish, would like to be part of a paradigm change. He feels a sense of urgency.

Fortunately, he doesn’t encounter much skepticism or lack of compliance in the families he serves. Individuals of all socio-economic backgrounds warm to Park Rx. After all, given the opportunity to eat well and spend time in nature, most people jump at the chance. Any barriers that exist are systemic, Zarr believes. Children spend too much time inside schools preparing for standardized tests and too little in recess and physical activity. Parents work two to three jobs. Zarr knows mothers who spend forty dollars on train fare to get their children to the clinic. They find cabs cheaper. Because of climate change, it’s often too hot or too cold outside. Yet architects still design buildings without windows or green roofs, without indoor or outdoor landscaping. “People are in desperate situations. We need to ask ourselves as a population if our routines are healthy for the planet and us. What constitutes happiness and well-being is the nature of what we’re talking about—pardon the pun.”

How Park Rx Works

The Trust for Public Land scored over fifty of the nation’s urban areas on access to parks. The Washington, DC, metro area came in sixth. A number of District parks are adjacent to recreation centers with pools, stationary bicycles, and yearlong programs. So users can pursue regular or “green” exercise. Enter a zip code into the Park Rx database and out pops at least one park or green space within a five-mile radius. Usually, people can walk to its gates. If not, they can take the recommended bus or Metro line. Although database volunteers don’t research crime stats, they do subjectively rate parks on safety and cleanliness at different times of the day. They also note who visits the parks. Park Rx encourages people to go as families and use parks in different ways—to develop a sense of ownership.

For some people, particularly those coming out of violence here or, say, Central America, connecting with park rangers and families like theirs can alleviate fears. Park officials must be committed to greeting everyone, including those who might have had traumatic experiences in forested areas. “It’s a doctor’s job to be culturally aware of their patients—where they come from, their backgrounds, experiences, and routines—to make educated decisions about the right time and place to prescribe nature. The onus is on the doctor to establish a relationship with the person they’re counseling. For the health-provider community, Park Rx is a tool.” A good one the public can access.

Other Tools, Future Plans

At Unity, there are two other tools for doctors and patients, including the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program and Ways to Enhance Children’s Activity and Nutrition (appropriately abbreviated We Can!), a National Institutes of Health program. Children and adults spend the first half of classes indoors to get their vitals measured and learn about healthy eating. Then, they go to Meridian Hill Park for aerobics.

When asked what he had in the works, Zarr said he would soon find out if he had funding from the DC Department of Health to finish and revamp the database. He wants to make it more user friendly for providers and individuals, so they can search for activities like jogging, swimming, horseback riding and qualities like shade and cleanliness. He’d like to have the time patients spend in parks come back via their smartphones to their electronic medical records. He’d also like to design an app and find out what patients learn about nature.

But even the near future is a dream—or so the starlings were shouting from the trees. The man who had walked laps before us for an hour had gone inside. “It’s very, very hot, and I’m almost getting dizzy,” Zarr suddenly said. Whether his infectious enthusiasm or the weather had overheated me, I had to agree the day’s park prescription had run its course. I looked forward to another.

Crochet Coral Reef Sends Woolen Warning

Before me lay a room-high mound of warm-woolen fuzzies and lanolin-puffing fringees in blues and greens, reds and golds, white-beiges and browns. Mesmerized, my inner child waited for Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat to pop out to tell the story of the Crochet Coral Reef, an international project started in 2005 by the Los Angeles–based Institute for Figuring. Its founders, Margaret and Christine Wertheim, knew that the Great Barrier Reef of their native Australia was in bad shape. They called for help.  Artists responded.  Together, they crocheted a reef that grew faster than corals ever did, even before climate change.

I saw the reef in 2011 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. The show brightened an otherwise dim hall near museum cases about living corals. The juxtaposition drove home the relevance of the arts to environmental issues and inspired me to learn more about corals, global warming, and ocean pollution. I had just the reaction the reef’s creators and museum’s curators planned. In fact, based on my visit, I decided to blog on where health, environment, and the arts meet, my tagline.

Crochet is a “feminine art.” So when the reef set out for Washington, DC, four homeless women of N Street Village joined 200 local crocheters to spawn baby corals for the 4,000-piece reef. Women combating poverty and ill health came to the aid of embattled corals through art. With their hooks, they crocheted model hyperbolas, the shapes corals take that have fascinated mathematicians for centuries. While the curvy, yet straight linear forms grew so did the bonds between threatened human artists and corals, between land and sea creatures.

As the women and exhibit goers learned, excess atmospheric carbon, water pollution, destructive fishing, coastal development, coral mining, and careless tourism have already killed 20 percent of the world’s reefs. Coral reefs are the largest biological structures on Earth; the Great Barrier Reef is visible from outer space. But reefs grow slowly. Most are 5,000 to 10,000 years old. They harbor 25 percent of all marine life and provide food, income, coastal protection, and the ingredients of life-saving medicines for millions of people. With the rise in temperatures and release of carbon, oceans are becoming acidic enough to kill reefs. One colony of the Crochet Coral Reef is white and beige to represent bleached, skeletonized corals. Another is full of human detritus—beer tabs, plastic bags, and cassette tape.

Depressing as the state of the world’s corals is, the Crochet Coral Reef is probably the most effective and delightful means of delivering an environmental message imaginable. If only the Cat in the Hat’s VOOM would emerge from all the colorful yarn to clean up the mess we, the Little Cats, have made of the ancient reefs!

 

Green, the Color

The feeling. The hue of Ireland, Islam, and Indian mysticism. Of winter’s solstice and half Christmas. Color code of the environment and environmental movement, of Green Peace.

Greens. Brood of blue and yellow. Malachite, emerald, and jade shades of majesty and yore. Chicory, moss, mantis, shamrock, olive, and pine—garden greens of peace and poetry.

Green is for nature and newness. It describes green monkeys, green turtles, and green sunfish. With blue, it adorns parading peacocks, and as algae, it blankets slumbering sloths. In leprechauns, monsters, and dragons, green is, or is not.

It’s merely a degree of blue in Chinese, old Japanese, Thai, and Vietnamese. The Ancient Greeks didn’t notice green, but the Romans had ten words for it. In English summers, there are green peppers, green onions, and green beans at the green grocer’s. Throughout the year, green-thumbed growers tend vegetables in greenhouses for greenbacks from gardening greenhorns.

And thousands of years ago, expert painters ground malachite, a mineral found in copper mines, to obtain a blue-green pigment. It colored the halo of the Buddha in China and the face of Osiris in Egypt. Mere mortal Egyptians shaded their eyes with malachite makeup to ward off the sun and evil. Across the “Great Green,” as they called the Mediterranean Sea, Pliny the Elder lauded malachite’s powers in Rome. Some thirteen centuries on, Cennino Cennini listed three greens in The Craftsman’s Handbook. Malachite he called “half natural.”

There are no more natural greens than those found in leaves. But chlorophyll, a pigment essential to photosynthesis and the greenness of plants, proved hard to fix as a dye. Neolithic fashionistas obtained a weak green from birch leaves. In Europe, green textiles continued to fall victim to sunlight and washing until the sixteenth century when dyers first dipped material in woad (Isatis tinctoria) for blue and weld (Reseda luteola) for yellow.

In surveying the old green denizens of my crayon box, I found copper. Like the bronze statue of a venerable general, time had cloaked it in verdigris. A deceptive, derivative, all-too-temporal—green.

Blue, the Color

The mood. The hue of things Hellenic, Jewish, and Marian. Of Krishna and the Buddha’s peace of mind. Color code of health and health care, the United Nations.

Blues. The music. The “beyond the seas” ultramarine of lapis lazuli and the blue-black indigo of cultivated woad and wilderness weed. Ice, Wedgewood, sapphire, royal, navy, and Prussian—rainbow blues of superstition and awe.

Blue is for sky and water. It describes blue cats, blue sheep, and blue whales. It tints blue spruce and graces blue gardens. In blueberries, bluebirds, and bluebonnets, blue is true. Chicory is blue, too.

It’s the “azure” of Persian that Arabic brought from Afghanistan to France, then Europe, through Andalusia in Spain. In English, there are well-born blue bloods and hardworking blue-collar workers. Once in a blue moon, blue-nosed moralists turn blue in the face when their friends curse a blue streak of blue language.

And once upon a time, a creamy-bright ultramarine pigment came from crushed lapis lazuli. Lapis is a rock (an aggregate of minerals), not a gem. It still hails mostly from nearly inaccessible mines in mountainous Badakhshan, Afghanistan. For centuries, traders shipped deep blue nili, azure asmani, and turquoise sabzi lapis loads down the Indus River by dhow to Egypt, where Cleopatra shadowed her eyes royal blue. Some of the haul travelled along the western Silk Road through Aleppo, Syria, to Venice and the palates of Michelangelo and the younger Titian.

Between lighter shades of blue and violet lay indigo—according to Issac Newton, who placed it on his spectrum of seven colors. Indigo comes from many species of Indigofera, which grow in Latin American and Asian tropics. Indian indigo, after much political drama, displaced European woad (Isatis tinctoria) in the seventeenth century. Indigos and woad are magic. They produce a yellow that turns blue only when it hits the air. They can make blacks blacker and whites whiter, until they turn blue. Anglo-Saxons, Aztecs, Germans, Indians, Omanis, Yemenis, and Yoruba have died cloth, even themselves, shades of indigo to ward off evil from infancy to death.

Some years ago, on a warm winter day in a soup kitchen, I tested the power of blue. Steaming more than the cooking pots, I took off an indigo-dyed Touareg scarf. My neck was perfectly blue, alarmingly so. A beyond the seas, beyond the world—blue.

 

Scientific Names

While rifling through my cookbooks and botanical tomes to find information for the previous post (From Chicory to Coffee), I began to panic. What was the difference between Cichorium intybus and Cichorium endivia? Which did people drink and which did they eat? Was I dealing with a bunch of bitter balls of lettuce or a beautiful blue bloom?  Should the trademark of Sebold Communications have featured a flower around a pen or a pen in a salad spinner? I thought scientific names were supposed to relieve confusion, not worsen it.

Part of the answer lay in two books I inherited from my grandmother a dozen years ago—Eleanor Perényi’s Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden and Waverley Root’s Food: An Authoritative and Visual History and Dictionary of the Foods of the World. In short, all endives are chicories, but not all chicories are endives. Both species are members of the genus Cichorium, and both land on our plates. It seems that, over time, Americans and Europeans have disagreed about which edibles belong to which species. Hence, my distress.

What’s clear (kind of like the mud plants grow in) is that C. endivia var. crispa is curly endive, the frisée or “chicory” Americans see in grocery stores, sometimes next to C. endivia var. latifolium, the flatter-leaved escarole. C. intybus, whose roasted root flavors coffee, is Belgian endive in the States. It’s the tightly wound wad of white and pale green leaves that people often sauté in butter. After chicory flowers, enthusiasts dig up the roots and bury them in damp sand in warm, dark cellars until new leaves bud. Less rugged folks just putter over to a purveyor of fancy green goods.

Or fancy red goods. After all, what about red Belgian endive? Well, it’s radicchio, the unforced heart of a C. intybus variety with red leaves. Then there’s speckled radicchio, or chickendive, which came about when C. intybus and C. endivia found—ahem—common ground.

All members of the Cichorium genus belong to the Asteraceae family, which is part of the Asterales order, which falls under the Asteranae superorder, which—yada yada. Never mind that some people call the Asteraceae “Compositae.” We don’t want to get into the weeds, do we?

If you remain confused, consult the Integrated Taxonomic Information System. Worried about how to italicize the scientific names of plants? Follow the examples in this post, or better yet, consult the Chicago Manual of Style.

As for me, I feel a little better. I think.

From Chicory to Coffee

There it was in the field: blue enchantment.

My grandmother was somewhere behind me, hidden by grasses body-tall. Her quick work was muffled by meadowlarks ground-nesting and spring-summer heat ululating, low. We were collecting teasles and milkweed pods, the natural bits she crafted into porcupines, rabbits, and little kings set before blackbird pies. Characters from nursery rhymes and her private imagination.

I turned to face the chicory flower again. A cricket chirped. I went in for the pick.

Cichorium intybus—chicory flower, blue sailors, succory, coffeeweed—is an aster native to central Europe. It spread to North Africa and the Middle East and, centuries later, to North America and Australia. It has dandelion-like leaves in rosettes close to the ground and hairy, grooved stalks up to four feet high. Sometimes the ruffled petals come in pink and white, rather than lavender and blue. They make up flowers that open and close at the same time every day and lie close to their stems.

Afraid of bees.

The flowers can be pickled, crystallized in sugar, made into wine, and frozen in ice cubes. Italians, Spanish, Greeks, and Turks cook young chicory leaves. Food foragers favor C. intybus greens. So do livestock. The ancients discovered chicory’s powers to combat diabetes, worms, depression, indigestion, and headaches. Some swear that chicory essence rids cats and dogs of codependence. Chicory even ranks among the Glass Flowers of Harvard.

Since the Middle Ages, people have roasted chicory’s long taproot and added the grounds to coffee, especially during wars and economic downturns. In the mid-nineteenth century, Arthur Hill Hassal, using the long-neglected microscope, proved his suspicion that the coffee in London shops was almost universally extended with chicory (and, far worse, liver). In France, the Netherlands, Germany, India, Vietnam, and Louisiana, they fell in love with chicory’s peppery taste. During a coffee shortage in Syria, I turned to tea.

That was years after I gathered my blue bouquet. I presented it proudly to Grandma. It wilted right away as—I later learned—anything preciously magic would.

From Bamboo to Pen

Somewhere near you, a stand of pens is growing. Quietly and quickly. All you have to do is look closely at your neighbor’s bamboo hedge, and you’ll see the pens, stacked end to end, greenish tan, like images in a seek-and-find picture puzzle.

You might even see them grow. Bamboo stems, stretching, node to node.

That’s because bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants on Earth. In some places, it’s even invasive. Its 1,450 species can attain their full height (fifteen to forty feet) in one growing season. Bamboo’s secret agents? Rhizomes. The underground stems send forth shoots that press their way through the soil into blue light. The new culms stand stem to stem, darkening the ground, green.

Long about their third year, the culms harden. Turn brown. Ripen into pens.

Bamboo is a true grass, a member of the Poaceae family, like crab grass, the bane of gardeners. But bamboo is useful. It can be made into lumber, medicines, textiles, paper—and pens. Pandas and lemurs find bamboo shoots delicious. African mountain gorillas love them. Humans like them, too. The Buddhist monk Zan Ning wrote a book full of bamboo-shoot recipes.

Japanese make fishing poles out of one bamboo species. They’re flat on one side and have knobby ends, great for holding string in place. Mohamed Zakariya, one of the best Islamic calligraphers in the world, stocks up on the poles when he visits Hawaii. He cuts them and carves the ends into nibs to write big Arabic letters, 7/16 inches wide. He made my bamboo pen, my one and only, the one I used when I studied with him. It became part of the trademark of Sebold Communications and the namesake of this blog. At some point, I’ll interview Mohamed about pens of all sorts and Islamic calligraphy. Meanwhile, visit his website to learn more about his art.

And welcome! Please watch the Bamboo Pen grow. Post to post.