Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Susan Lamb

I remember how bored I was in Latin class, gazing out the window at birds chirping in the trees. I’d been persuaded that Latin would come in handy for its own sake but also as the basis for lovelier languages. True on both counts, but sing-songy grammatical drills and readings from pompous elders of the Roman Republic seemed awfully irrelevant at the time. Biology class was much the same in those days: studying life sciences meant rote-learning of taxonomic terms and performing ghastly dissections. I didn’t see a connection between either of the subjects and the real world that called to me from outside that window.

But life has a funny way of creating connections, of tapping all our experiences and yearnings to assemble the creatures we eventually become. I thought I’d left those rigid disciplines behind when I joined the National Park Service but failed to consider how interpreting the natural world would bring me face to face with my old adversaries: Latin and Life Sciences.

I resisted them at first, preferring folklore to facts and stubbornly refusing to learn the Latin names of plants. Of course, this couldn’t last. Simple curiosity and the urge to do my job properly soon had me reading books and magazine articles about scientific discoveries and learning Latin names.

A world of wonders unfolded! Scientists now have the most remarkable tools to observe the infinite forms and behaviors with which life expresses itself, and they describe much of what they learn using the Latin vocabulary. There are so many stories in those clickety-clack names as well as puns, tributes, geography lessons, pharmacological tips, rapturous descriptions, and most of all, connections.

People everywhere have always given interesting “common” names to local plants they use for medicine, food, and ceremonies. In western culture, it was Greek philosophers who began to organize the known world systematically. Romans adapted Greek names into Latin forms that persisted in medieval texts about herbal remedies. During the Age of Exploration, scholars continued to use Latin in their efforts to organize the flood of unfamiliar plants and animals brought back to Europe.

In 1757 the Swedish physician Carl Linnaeus conceived the system still in usetoday. Linnaeus’ father was first in his family to adopt a last name, Latinizing a word from his local dialect for a giant linden tree on his land. Carl used Latin names to classify plants and animals according to what he thought were family
resemblances. (With the advent of DNA analysis, science is now in the process of revising the Latin names of plants using genetics instead of flower shapes.) For instance, Linnaeus placed milkweeds — a group of plants with similar flowers and potent chemistry — into the family Asclepiadaceae, a Latinized name for Aesculpius, the Greek god of medicine.

Linnaeus further divided families into groups called genera (think “generic”), based on even closer similarities in flower anatomy. He modified each genus name with a species (“specific”) name to distinguish between closely-related plants, resulting in our binomial system of paired names such as Valeriana arizonica. Valeriana is from valere which means “health” in Latin, for the plant’s tranquilizing properties later synthesized as Valium. The species name arizonica means “of Arizona” because this sweet little pale pink shade lover is a local native.

“All rootedness is learning to call things by their right name,” Confucius. Instead of spending six years majoring in Greek and Latin, it’s much easier now to discover the meaning and derivations of plant names in The Names of Plants by David Gledhill and websites such as

Try it yourself! Look up Calochortus nuttalli, the Latin binomial for sego lily. You will learn that the genus of this member of Liliaceae — the Lily Family — means “beautiful grass” (a description of its leaves) and that it was named for the
English botanist Thomas Nuttall (1786-1859), who ventured into the wild American West to collect plants. Voyageurs who accompanied Nuttall described him as “some whimsical kind of madman” who used his rifle to dig up plants and store seeds. You’ll never see a sego lily the same way again.

Susan Lamb is a local writer and naturalist ( Dana Prom Smith is the coordinating editor of Gardening Etcetera. He can be contacted at

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (3/8/2011)

Bob Feller, the legendary high-kicking, pitcher for the Cleveland Indians, once said, “Trying to sneak a fast-ball by Ted Williams was like trying to sneak a sunbeam by a rooster in the morning.” Bob Feller came straight off an Iowa farm at 17 into the major leagues so he knew something about both fast-balls and roosters. His father built a “field of dreams” for him down by the barn and named it Oak View Park. He credited his arm strength and ball speed with milking cows, picking corn, and baling hay. He was reliable.

At one time, his fast-ball was measured at 107.6 miles per hour. In his entire career of 18 years at Cleveland, he pitched 266 victories and 162 losses with 2,581 strike outs. A few days after Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Navy and eventually became a chief petty officer as a gun captain firing the famed Bofors on the U.S.S. Alabama.

When it comes to gardening in Flagstaff, reliability is important. Our climate doesn’t tolerate poop-out vegetables, and the best no-poop-outers are root vegetables, such as beets. Root vegetables don’t have the same panache as does a mesclun of arugula, frisée, chervil, and radicchio thrown with balsamic vinegar, goat cheese, dried cranberries, and pine nuts and served with a fine chardonnay, but like “Bullet Bob,” beets pack a lot more punch.

To begin with, beets are incredibly nutritious. They’re not only jammed with antioxidants, they’re also anti-inflammatory and foster detoxification, especially heavy and radio-active metals. Those alone would make them wunderbar, but there’s more: iron, copper, zinc, manganese, iodine, fiber, starch, magnesium, calcium, and vitamins A, B, B5, B6, C, E, and folic acid. My mother told me carrots were brain food. So are beets, and all of us need a little help there.

In addition to all that, they’re easy to grow. Any damned fool can grow them. I know because I do. Beet seeds look a little like Grapenuts but are actually small bundles of seeds. As with nearly everything else in the garden, they require a nutritious, friable soil, compost-loaded soil.

Fertilizer should be low in nitrogen for the sake of the root. The seeds are best planted one inch apart in rows 12-18 inches apart with successive sowings every three weeks for a continuous crop. When plants are a few inches high, it’s best to thin them to 3-4 inches apart so the roots will have growing space. Also, they need regular watering and weed picking.

The only problem with beets is cooking them because they stain. Surgical gloves keep the stain off the hands, and lemon juice removes beet stains from the skin. Beets shouldn’t be cooked too long for fear of adversely affecting their nutritive value and color, 20 minutes for steaming and nothing over an hour for roasting. Leave an inch or so of the tail and the leaves to prevent staining. The skin can easily be slipped off after steaming or roasting.

They can also be pickled, but that’s a “whole ‘nother story.” Olga Johnson has a great recipe for borsch at (

Happily, God has blessed us with many varieties. Several of the favorites are bull’s blood, Burpee’s golden, Detroit dark red, and di Chiogga. The last one has concentric circles of light and dark and is favored for salads. They are sweet, tangy, and a delight to the eye as well as the tongue.

In addition to the root, beet leaves are also a desideratum and can well be added to a mesclun to give it a little fire-power. Beets are often denigrated to the beer-and-brats and accordian category, but, nowadays, they’re actually dernier cri (the latest in fashion) served with a fine pinot noir accompanied by a string quartet. Some slight them because they’re a root, but no less a person than the food critic for The New York Times, Martha Rose Shulman, considers them “the new spinach,” so full are they of nutrients and flavor.

Bob Feller said, “I just reared back and let them go,” and go they did. Beets are a 107.6 mph worth of goodness and taste. Go beets! Go!

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2011

Saturday, March 05, 2011


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (2/6/2011)

“I just knew it! I just knew it! I’ve told you so many times that you never listen!” Meine Űberfrau was responding to the news that I’ve lost some hearing in my left ear for high decibel, highly pitched voices and sounds, the ear I use when listening to her. “It’s not only that,” she continued, “you just tune out lots of times, like in restaurants and noisy meetings, like you’re floating in midair in an alternate reality. It’s like where are you?”

When the audiologist peered into my ears, he said, “Oh, good, they’re clean.” Like the dentist, no matter how hard I brush and floss, my dentist, J. Thomas Montfort, always finds debris sequestered amongst my molars. He uses a wire-thin, hooked instrument resembling a miniature Spanish garrote. He calls them explorers which is better than voyagers, expeditions, or worse yet, King Arthur’s Excalibur.

That aside, I don’t have a tin ear. It’s just muffled enough to shut out what I don’t want to hear. I’m old, and after sixty years of listening to the squeaks and gibbers of all sorts and conditions of people, my ears have had enough.

The Preacher in Ecclesiastes was close, “There is no new thing under the sun.” While that’s true, there’s more to it than that. There’s too much noise. There’s not enough time to think, let alone to think before speaking. We live in a society of hard surfaces and rectangles, reverberating harsh messages in strident voices, the clipped brutalities of corporate functionaries.

The silence of life in a garden is a boon to the ear, left or right. It’s not the absence of sound, but the silence of life. There is a great line in Genesis 3:8, “And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.” The prophet imagined hearing a footfall, the brush of branches against a thigh, a sigh on catching the scent of a rose, the hushed flurry of insects, all indicating a Presence yet unseen. It’s quiet in the cool of the day when the noise of the day is over. It’s in that pause after the heat and clamor when the gloaming draws nigh. Eugene Mason, an English poet at the turn of the 20th century, said it well: “I all but touch Him with my outstretched arm.”

Such a time is the reward of gardening. It’s that time when one can sit down and gather the pieces of oneself, having been scattered throughout the day. There’s something special about a garden in the cool of the day. It’s elemental, connecting all the five senses to the sensations of the garden. It’s gardening with the left ear when everything has been said, shutting out the hard-surfaced noises of shiny, impenetrable buildings, and listening to the silences of life. It’s Elijah listening for the Lord’s presence in “a small voice of stillness.”

Simon and Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence is about an urban bleakscape where the voices are “talking without speaking,” and “hearing without listening,” silences of indifference, deafened by the racket of subway walls. The voices of a garden’s silences are different, not hard-edged, but soft, the kind that one strains to hear for the listening.

Every garden needs a bench, a chair, or a large rock on which one sat sit and listen to the silences of nature. Cicero, the Roman nobleman, statesman, and father of rhetoric, said, “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”

As with everything in life, it’s the small things: the scent of a rose haunting the air, the songs of birds, the scurrying of squirrels chasing each other upon and down the trunk of ponderosa pine tree, that carry the weight of that soft touch of love on a shoulder. The garden isn’t a refuge so much as it’s a place to make connections with oneself. It’s gardening with the left ear, cutting out all the grating, hard-edged noises and listening to the small voice of stillness, the voice of a Presence unseen yet heard.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2011