Monday, September 15, 2014


The first book I remember picking for myself at the Livingston Avenue branch of the Columbus Public Library was The True Book of Weeds and Wildflowers by Illa Podendorf. I can still remember pulling the green book with it's curly script font off the shelf. I think I was in the first grade. Then, when I was seven years old my mother bought me my first wildflower book . . . the Zim/Martin Guide to Wildflowers. I got a small green notebook and recorded all my finds with flowery descriptions filled with every adjective I knew. I searched for wildflowers everywhere, from my own suburban backyard to the shores of Buckeye Lake and the forests and field of Blacklick Woods. When I was 10, my family moved from Columbus to Erie, Pennsylvania. My dad drove us all over the county, exploring our new home state. Whenever I spotted a flower from the back seat of our station wagon, he would pull over so I could get out and get a better look. Presque Isle State Park on the shores of Lake Erie became my new hunting ground.

mountain rosebay or great laurel
Now many many many years and dozens of different field guides later, I'm still hunting for wildflowers. This summer my kids and I took a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains. It's known as the National Park with the most wildflowers, so I was, of course, keen to go. The kids like to walk in the woods and look for lizards and skinks, frogs and turtles, so they were keen to go as well. As soon as graduation was over, school was out, and the dance recital finished, we hit the road. And even though I only found three wildflowers . . . the mountain rosebay (or great laurel, pictured at right), cardinal flower, and partridge berry, it was a truly amazing trip! I spent a lot of time trying to get a photo of the partridge berry with only minimal luck: I never could get the flowers (so tiny, but so "furry") into focus. This berry, and the tiny leaves, came out okay.
partridge berry

I was already in love with the mountain rosebay after seeing one at Goodell Gardens in Edinboro, Pennsylvania, a few years ago. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who were both enamored of native plants, grew mountain rosebay in their gardens Monticello and Mount Vernon. It is late-blooming and features one of my favorite things: lime green polka dots. I like how the pink buds are all crinkled up. The buds look grumpy, like the flowers on the turtlehead.

Nick saw a spotted salamander, but didn't get a photo (too busy trying to catch it). I't supposed to be a very "shy" animal, so I guess we should be happy that he even saw one at all. I also saw an amazing butterfly, which I tried to creep up on, so I could get a good picture. I was quiet as could be, but it kept flittering away. Back at the bottom of the mountain I googled it . . . a diana fritillary, the state butterfly of Arkansas. Doesn't it look like velvet? You can see another picture here. Lily and Jack found a black rat snake and Lily got this fantastic picture (at right). Apparently Lily is afraid of butterflies, but had no problem with this huge snake. You learn amazing things about your kids in the woods.

I'm toying with the idea of putting all these things together in a quilt, although I can't quite figure out how it would all go together yet.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Along the Spice Route

My original sketch for the window, with notes.
About a year ago I was asked by Paula Golden to participate in a quilt titled "Along the Spice Route." I had no problem picking a spice from the list . . . vanilla . . . and even though there were some very specific instructions (the quilt had to include a window or an arch that looked out on a marketplace), I actually came up with an idea right away (see left!). And the quilt wasn't due until June 30th, so I had plenty of time.

Well, I think we all know where this is going.

On June 29th in Erie, Pennsylvania, I started sewing and I didn't stop until August 6th. One day after Paula's "drop dead" deadline, which wasn't the real drop dead deadline because Paula knows how quilters like me operate and she didn't tell me the real drop dead deadline.

Here's what I learned about vanilla along my journey: In 1841, a 12-year-old slave on Reunion, one of the Bourbon Islands off the south east coast of Africa, discovered the secret to hand-pollinating a yellow orchid and changed the flavor of history forever. Until the 1400s, the tlilxochitl vine was known only to the Totonac Indians on the east central coast of Mexico. Then the Aztecs arrived, conquered the tribe, and forced the Totonocans to pay tributes with, among other things, the fruit of the tlilxochitl vine. In 1520, a Spanish conquistador, Hernando Cortez, showed up and swiftly conquered the Aztecs. Upon his defeat, the Aztec emperor Montezuma offered Cortez a drink -- a mixture of ground corn, cacao beans, honey, and tlilxochitl pods. Cortez was enchanted with the bold new flavor. He executed Montezuma, and Spain took control of the vine.

Plants and pods were shipped to Spain and then to other parts of Europe, and the new drink became popular among the rich and noble. (Thomas Jefferson brought vanilla pods to the colonies after a visit to France . . . but that was much later.) So, back in Europe . . . For 80 years or so the vine was only used as an ingredient in the chocolate drink crafted by the Aztecs. Enter Queen Elizabeth the First's apothecary, Henry Morgan, who realized in 1602 that the pods could be used as a flavoring. Even though the pods had more uses, Mexico was still the only source of the pods until the 1700s, when it was smuggled out of Mexico and planted in the French territory of Reunion.

The plant, named Vanilla planifolia by a French botanist, Charles Plumier, in 1743, grew well on the island, but never produced pods. Eventually scientists realized that, in their native habitat, vanilla orchids are pollinated by a bee only found in Mexico. With no natural pollinators on Reunion, leading botanists and horticulturists of the time tried to unlock the secret of how to pollinate the flower by hand with little luck.  Which brings us back around to young Edmond. Vanilla would have remained an obscure spice, if not for his discovery.

I love vanilla, so I'm particularly grateful to Edmond Albius. For the past few years my middle son, Jack, and I have been brewing and bottling our own vanilla extract at home according to a recipe we found in Make the Bread, Buy the Butter: What You Should and Shouldn't Cook from Scratch -- Over 120 Recipes for the Best Homemade Foods, by Jennifer Reese (who also writes one of my favorite blogs, The Tipsy Baker.) We've used vanilla pods from Madagascar, as well as pods from Tahiti and Mexico. We both love to bake and we add vanilla to everything.

As you can see below, the final quilt looks a little different from my original drawing. I decided to add a lemur looking in the window after we visited the Erie Zoo and saw this little guy. Jack loved lemurs when he was younger, so I imagined Edmund with a pet lemur selling his vanilla pods at a farm stand in the rainforest (hey it could have happened . . . ). The window was based on an historic arch in Ambohimanga, Madagascar and some turquoise porch railings I saw in photos of houses in Madagascar. My kids and I visited the orchid exhibit at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, DC, for "research." Even though their vanilla orchid hasn't bloomed yet, the exhibit was amazing and provided lots of information on plant collecting and orchid obsessions. (Plus it's a great place to visit when it's cold and rainy.)

My friend and neighbor Katina was helping me figure out how to label the vanilla pods when her 17-year-old daughter, Marquette, walked through the kitchen. Marquette suggested making the lemur's tail curve around to fill in some of the space at the bottom and point to the vanilla pods (which was an excellent idea).

Choosing the fabrics for the quilt was so much fun. I used many batiks to represent fabrics of the tropical island of Madagascar, but I also "imagined" traders visiting the islands, and added a Japanese fabric (it's one of the bricks with tiny dragonflies), corduroy, linen, gingham, flannel, and quilting cottons. I have a huge button collection and I always add lots of buttons to my appliqué quilts. The blue one on the bottom middle of the arch was made in South Africa. Another one came from Israel. Some are "antiques" and others are modern.

Sunday, June 1, 2014


A couple of months ago, Jane Cubbon of Daffodil Quilts and Fibers in Nokesville, Virginia, asked me to design a pattern for the Row by Row Experience Shop Hop she will be participating in this summer. It was great to work with Jane. She only had one request . . .  she wanted the row to include a daffodil. That was the easy part.

Let me just say . . . I have problems with deadlines, fabric choices, size constraints, button limitations, decision-making . . . But I like daffodils, too, so I said yes.

Even though it only took me a couple days to come up with the initial design, it took me another month and a half to finalize what I wanted to do, which left me only two weeks to sew it, quilt it, add the buttons, bind it, determine the fabric requirements, and write the directions. Did I mention that I have a problem with deadlines?

So I know you'll be shocked when you hear that I actually finished the row on time . . . on the last day at 2:30 in the afternoon, but on time. (I know I was shocked.) And I love how the row turned out! That's it, at the top of the blog. There are dogwoods (our state flower), bluebells (hundreds of bluebells bloom at Merrimac Farm, which is near to Daffodil, every spring), cherry blossoms (the Washington, DC/northern Virginia area is known for them),  strawberries (there is a pick-your-own strawberry farm down the road from the shop), and, of course, daffodils.

You can get the pattern for free when you buy something at Daffodil between July 1 and September 1. Jane will also be putting a kit together for the row. (At the right is the fabric "cheat" sheet I gave her -- she has some really beautiful fabric in the shop!) She will also be selling some of my patterns in the shop.

Visit Daffodil Quilts and Fibers (13059 Fitzwater Drive, Nokesville, Virginia, 703-594-038) this summer to pick up the pattern. Several other local shops who are participating in the shop hop . . . Kelly Ann's in Warrenton, Suzzie's in Manassas, and Circle Sewing in Woodbridge. Each shop has it's own pattern based on one of the seasons. You can find more information about the shop hop at Happy summer!