Sunday, September 16, 2007

Crazy Daisy

I've always loved daisies. The daisy is such a bright, happy little flower. And of course, you can pull its petals and play the "he loves me, he loves me not" game with a daisy.
When I joined my co-op's gardening committee, I decided I was going to be the flower lady on the committee. Not the kind of lady who wears a fancy hat and speaks at luncheons about beautifying America, but the kind who gets her hands dirty digging up weeds and planting seeds in front of her Brooklyn apartment building.

In late spring, I did the ladylike thing and rode my bicycle over to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden so I could see the tulips blooming. And then I went to the BBG's gift shop and bought several packets of seeds, including shasta daisies:

and black-eyed susans:

Or so I thought.

I planted the seeds in the round beds on either side of the front walkway and waited for them to grow. It seemed to take forever, weeks and weeks. Finally, in late June, a few little seedlings started to pop up, and the next day more popped up, and the day after that even more. It seemed that every seed I planted was starting to come up! I checked on their progress daily, and I could see the seedlings were really taking to the soil--like weeds, practically, they were so strong and healthy. It seemed that only one of the varieties had taken--I wasn't sure whether it was the daisies or the susans--but no matter. Something was growing.

Within a month the flower beds were full of this lush, verdant growth. On walks around my neighborhood, Kensington, I compared the daisies and susans in other people's gardens to mine. Hmm. Something wasn't right. Why didn't my leaves look like theirs? Why did I not see any buds, let alone blossoms, on my plants when everybody else's were in full bloom? Oh, there was something blooming, all right, but it was a crazy, brushy thing that looked exactly like this:
Still, if you've given birth to the ugliest baby in town, that baby is yours and you planted its seed, so you're going to love it no matter how ugly it is, right? That's why I was so upset when I came home from work one evening, checked my flower beds as usual, and saw to my horror that more than half of my big ugly babies had been ripped right off their stalks and disappeared. Why, why, oh why would anybody want to attack my flowers? I felt sick and violated.

The gossip started to spread. I asked my fellow gardening committee members if they knew what had happened, and I talked to other neighbors in our building, who talked to other neighbors on our street. Kensington has a diverse population of people who come from many lands: Park Slope, Williamsburg, Chicagoland (that would be me), Poland, Russia, Uzbekistan, Albania, Israel, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Mexico and the Caribbean. It's a lively mix of immigrants, but we don't always understand each other. There's lots of gossip (but don't just take my word for it--there's a good sampling of local gossip on Kensington Blog.)

Finally, I talked to our super, Willie, who has lived in the neighborhood for years and years.

"Joyce, do you know what callaloo is?"


"Callaloo. It's a plant from the West Indies, and they make soup out of it. There were some ladies come by the other night and they took some of your plants to make soup."

Willie and I looked at each other, and we laughed.

I went home and googled "callaloo," of course, and here's what I learned from wikipedia: "Callaloo (sometimes calaloo) is a Caribbean dish that is most popular in Jamaica, Guyana, Barbados, and Trinidad & Tobago. Jamaicans are known to use callaloo in a plethora of dishes. The main ingredient is a leaf vegetable, traditionally either amaranth (known by many local names including callaloo or bhaji), or taro or Xanthosoma species (both known by many local names including callaloo, coco, tannia, or dasheen bush). Because the leaf vegetable used in some regions may be locally called 'callaloo' or 'callaloo bush,' some confusion can arise among the different vegetables and with the dish itself."

Oh, there was confusion, all right. Mine. How the hell did my daisy seeds from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden give spawn to callaloo? Once I understood the misunderstanding, though, I went from feeling violated to highly amused, especially after my first-floor neighbor, I'll call her Velma, told me that she saw those West Indian ladies sneak into our flower beds late one night to take the food I'd been growing. Velma and her dog are the self-designated eyes and ears of our building.

Velma called out to the ladies to ask what they were doing, and they explained that it was harvest time. They had been watching the callaloo's growth, too, and figured they should collect some before the leaves and stalks got too tough. Velma chased them off anyway, saying they had no right to steal our plants--and they hadn't even used scissors to cut them, they were just using their bare hands and pulling any old which way. She last saw the West Indian ladies running down the street, callaloo stalks in hand, their heads surely filled with plans for the pepper pot soup they were going to make. Here's a recipe for it on the Jamaica Me Krazy web site: pepper pot soup

I just hope those ladies were wearing fancy hats when they stole my callaloo.


bella said...

Well you sure as hell better harvest the rest and make yourself a pot of that callaloo soup and invite me over for some while you're at it...let's see what the fuss is all about!

Krista said...

I'll admit that I have no green thumb to speak of, but I'm also curious how daisy seeds created callaloo. At least you got a good story out of the mishap.

Xris (Flatbush Gardener) said...

They probably seeded themselves. They grew faster than what you planted, and overwhelmed your seedlings.

Whenever I move, it takes me a couple years to learn how to read the seedlings as they come up in the spring. Most of them will become weeds, but some might become something I want to keep.

If you start your seeds in a sterile mix, it's easier to recognize your seedlings and distinguish them from the existing weeds.

annulla said...

Great story. So ... have you tried harvesting and cooking any of the plants for yourself? says that steamed callaloo makes a "lovely vegetarian breakfast."

Mary said...

This was so hilarious to me! I had an experience much like yours with the ugly babies - only mine came from the compost that we used that was *supposed* to be weed-free!
We saw such lush growth, so fast that we were amazed.. but only for a little while.
It's a real shame that no one wanted to eat our weeds. (sigh)