Smile Politely

The other hemlock

On Arbor Day we got a new tree. It isn’t like we do this sort of thing each year and I would have completely forgotten that it was Arbor Day had a friend not reminded me when I told her about it Friday night at Artists Against Aids. It is, afterall, an impressive thing to see an older tree get taken down, its stump ground, and a new one taking its place in a matter of hours. Our old fir tree needed to be replaced because it had been hit by a drug dealer — very long story and State Farm does not look good at the end of it — and was slowly succumbing to poisoning by the adjacent black walnut. The new one is a Canadian hemlock which is walnut resistant and hopefully will not be a target for other drug dealers.

Before you ask, as several people did Friday night, our tree is not poisonous. Herbaceous hemlocks are the poisonous ones, not the trees. Herbaceous hemlocks look somewhat like Queen Anne’s lace. So how do you tell the difference? Queen Anne’s lace blooms in late summer and has multiple hairy flowering stems that branch from the base of the plant. Water hemlock has hairless, purple-tinged flowering stems that branch near the top of the plant. If you aren’t 100 percent sure which one you are looking at, do not eat it; do not touch it. You could be looking at a wild carrot or you could be looking at the most toxic plant in the U.S.

The confusion about poisonous plants didn’t end Friday night. On Sunday, I was helping a neighbor move some branches from a Japanese yew hedge she was removing. I commented that while pretty, yew is toxic for Christmas decorations in pet households. She said she never knew that but she did know that poinsettias were poisonous. Actually they aren’t, which is an unfortunate misconception.

So, in the interest of dispelling some myths, and because it hasn’t been consistently warm enough for spring carrots yet, here is a list of flowers that can add some color to what will surely be a mother lode of greens at Saturday’s Market at the Square in Urbana.

Impatiens: Got these in your border? Throw them on your salad with abandon. They may be bland, but they are safe and pretty.

Tulips: An iffier call, some people are allergic to them, some people aren’t. The petals are reported to taste like lettuce. But do not attempt to eat other parts of the plant as the bulb is especially toxic.

Lilacs: At the risk of having a salad that smells like grandma, these have a slightly bitter, lemony taste. As the perfume of lilacs varies from plant to plant, so will the flavor of the flowers.

Day Lilies: These will be around in another month. Toss the petals or entire flowers on salads. Or, do like my friend Mary does and stuff the blooms for a starter. Warnings abound regarding consuming day lilies in quantity as they purportedly have laxative properties. However, no one ever mentions exactly how many is too many, and unopened lily buds are used by the fistful in stir-fries in Hong Kong.

Violets: Purple and white varieties of these are everywhere right now. Easy enough to identify, violets are sweet like clover. Their leaves can be used like spinach. You can throw the flowers on salads, use them in ice cubes for drinks, or candy them to decorate cakes and other desserts.

Candied Violets

1. Rinse violets with stems gently in a sieve/mesh colander.

2. Dry violets on toweling.

3. Whisk a room temperature egg white with 1 t water. (Be sure to use antibiotic free eggs as these are not getting cooked).

4. Using a small clean paint brush that has never seen any paint, paint the violet with the barest coating of egg white.

5. Dip the coated violet in superfine sugar*

6. Allow to the candied violet to dry on parchment or waxed paper. If it is humid, place the parchment on a baking sheet in a gas oven and let the pilot light dry the violets.

You can store candied violets in a sealed container for as long as a year, however, their color will fade the longer they are stored.

* Superfine sugar or caster sugar is about halfway between granulated and powdered sugar. If you cannot find it, use a food processor or coffee grinder to grind granulated sugar to the right consistency.


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