Saturday, January 01, 2005

Blackberry Winter

I've heard that it's a Japanese tradition to spend New Year's Eve cleaning the house from top to bottom. Today, on the first day of 2005, Randy and I got bit by the Organization Bug. He spent the morning reorganizing his closet, and I put away all the holiday decorations. Wrapping up the red and green bobbles in tissue paper and packing them back into their cartons felt very refreshing. Maybe it's something of a ritual, the shedding of the holiday clutter in the New Year. With all the lights and knick knacks back in the basement, things feel a little less crowded in the house.

This first day of the year, our brief reprieve from winter weather seems to be over. I ventured outside for a walk, but was driven back towards the warmth by slushy, cold rain. Along the way, I did manage to find a discarded Christmas tree, and after getting permission from the former owner, I dragged it back to my yard. If the rain stops, I'm planning on cutting up the limbs to cover one of my garden beds. Back in the fall, I cleaned out a bed with the goal of planting blueberry shrubs there in the spring. With the pine boughs, I'm hoping for to accomplish two things--lower the acidity in the soil to better suit blueberries, and protect the bare soil for the blasting winter winds we've been having lately.

With gardening on my mind on this drizzly winter day, my latest garden book has been a really enjoyable read. Ladybugs, Tiger Lilies & Wallflowers: A Gardener's Book of Words by Robert Hendrickson shares word origins and lore from the garden. I've always liked dictionaries and word books, and this one is great fun because so many garden words have fascinating histories. "Apple" for instance, is one of the oldest English words, and the word apple has been applied to lots of different fruits and vegetables. For instance, pomegranates were called "apples of Carthage", tomatoes were called "love apples", and potatoes were called "apples of the earth." Over the years, it's been an all-inclusive fruit name. Here are a couple of word histories I thought were nifty.

Caterpillar. A caterpillar is a chatepelose, a "hairy cat," in Old French, and it is from this world that we originally got our word for the "wyrm among fruite," as the Old English called the creature. But the meaning and spelling of caterpillar were strengthened and changed by two Old English words. "To pill" meant "to strip or plunder," as in "pillage," which came to be associated with the little worm stripping the bark off of trees, and a glutton was a "cater," which the creature most certainly is. Thus the caterpillar became a "greedy pillager" as well as a "hairy cat," both good descriptions of its mien and manner.

Blackberries. In England blackberries, named for their color, of course, are the most common fruit growing in the wild and proverbially came to represent what is plentiful because they outyield all other bramble fruits: One plant can yield up to five gallons of berries. "Plentiful as blackberries" comes to us from Shakespeare, though what he actually wrote was "If reasons were as plenty as blackberries, I would give no man a reason for compulsion, I" (King Henry IV, Part I). The English call a cold early May when blackberries are in bloom a "blackberry winter," and in American a "blackberry summer" is a period of fine weather in late September of early October.

This fall, when I was cleaning up our bit of woods, I found a few brambles that might just be blackberries. I'm going to keep my eye on them this year to see if they fruit. Personally, I've never heard of the term "blackberry summer", but I like it and I may have take it up. It will be the latest thing in these parts.


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