Archive for the ‘agriculture’ Category



Most flowers, herbs, and plants used at Christmas are associated with very ancient celebrations. In those years before blooms could be airlifted to brighten our bleak mid-winters, the presence of a colorful , growing plant in dark December seemed miraculous, and therefore many stories and tales grew up around these plants. Think of holly (Christ Thorn), ivy (ivy clings, as people should cling to a religion) and mistletoe (used by the Druids as a plant with good luck powers, and as a sign of love in Norse mythology).

But the poinsettia is a much newer addition, the New World’s contribution to Christmas.



Note the small green flowers in the center

In 1825, Joel Roberts Poinsett of South Carolina, a diplomat who was the first American minister to Mexico, was intrigued with the brilliant red “flowers” topping spindly shrubs all over the country. (The “flowers” are actually brightly-colored bracts, or specialized leaves, which attract pollinating insects to the hidden, tiny green flowers). The local people called them “flame flowers” or “flowers of the Holy Night” because they were used as decorations in Mexican Nativity processions. These flowers, native to Mexico, were known even to the Aztecs, who regarded them as a gift from the gods and called them Cuetlaxochitl.

Dr. Poinsett was an enthusiastic botanist and he sent cuttings home for his greenhouse and to share with friends. They belong to the Euphorbiaceae or spurge family. The botanical name for poinsettia is Euphorbia pulcherrima (in Latin pulchra means ‘beautiful’, so this means ‘most beautiful’).


Light yellow


Coral with cream edges

About a hundred years later, Paul Ecke of California saw these plants and began to cultivate, interbreed, and experiment with them. The Ecke family built up a thriving business, which supplies thousands of growers around the world with cuttings that produce millions of holiday plants each year.

We can now enjoy red, pink, white, yellow, and marbled colors to brighten the holiday season. Pointsettias can range from miniatures in pots, to 10 to 15 feet tall trees in tropical and sub-tropical countries, like Mexico. I remember tall poinsettia trees in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) when we were growing up.


Trees–hard to imagine when we buy our pots here!



Pointsettias are not poisonous to people, but some people have a skin reaction to the milky sap. Also it’s best to keep pets from eating them, as the leaves can cause gastric reactions.

December 12 is Poinsettia Day, to mark the death of Joel Roberts Poinsett in 1851. Interestingly, in Mexico December 12 is the Dia de la Vergen (Day of the Virgin Mother) and on that day pointsettias are also displayed.

On one of our Christmas CDs we have a quirly song called “Percy the Puny Pointsettia” by Elmo and Patsy, so now our family tends to call all our poinsettia plants Percy! But, mostly they are not puny, and in fact one of our daughter’s Percys stayed alive for about 3 years in a pot in her house. A fun new tradition!



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Aronia Berry bushes


Unripe berries

berriescloseIn recent years I’ve heard a lot about aronia berries and how they are one of the new “superfoods”, mostly due to their high antioxidative activity and their high level of vitamins, minerals and folic acids. We even tried a few dried berries from Whole Foods, and I have to say I wasn’t that impressed with the taste.

So, it was really interesting a few weekends ago to actually see some aronia bushes and find out more about how they are grown.


Our group at the farm


A young aronia bush

We were in Wisconsin visiting a business colleague of my husband’s in Milwaukee, and after that we drove to their house in Door County, at Sister Bay at the end of the peninsula. They have a beautiful house on the water there, plus he owns a farm just behind the house. Part of the farm, called Hidden Acres, is devoted to a community garden and part to a commercial enterprise, where they grow all kinds of vegetables organically for local restaurants. Wonderful to wander around and pick fresh carrots or purple beans, for example.

Something new that he is trying is growing Aronia berries. The bushes are now about cheesecakethree years old and are producing quite nicely. The best production will come after about 5 years, apparently. The berries were not ripe yet: harvesting will be at about the beginning of September.

Our host’s wife made a cheesecake for dessert, and served it with a berry compote, made of blackberries, blueberries, raspberries and aronia berries. In a mix like that, the aronia berries were quite pleasant. We tried eating a few fresh ones too, and found them very fibrous and chewy and not terribly tasty really. But, mixed in a smoothie they are very good.


eating plain fresh aronia berries

We found out that Aronia is a woody perennial shrub in the rosaceae family that is native to the eastern United States. It grows in full sun and along woodland edges, so the setting of this farm is perfect.

Aronia has benefited from increased interest in phytonutrients, plant compounds that have beneficial effects on human health. Interest in “eating healthy” has led to worldwide growth in the popularity of aronia berries and products made from them. Aronia has been grown as a commercial berry crop in most Eastern European countries since the 1950s, starting in the Soviet Union in the late 1940s. It is now becoming a more popular cash crop in the Mid-West of the USA too. Some sources say that Aronia berries top the list of more than 100 foods that have been scientifically tested for antioxidant capacity.


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Vineyards below mountain

Day Trip out of Sapporo to a Winery

Hakkenzan Winery, Hokkaido, Japan

On one of the days we were in Hokkaido on our last visit, our hosts Satoshi and Max took us on a really interesting day trip: to a winery. Rod had read that Hokkaido was producing some wine, so we were very interested to see how and where that was taking place. Besides being a new crop/product in Hokkaido, the vines and winery are in a lovely setting below a famous mountain. Satoshi and Max explained that Hak=8, Ken=peak, and Zan=mountain.




Inside the winery

So, the meaning is 8-peak mountain and the winery sits below a mountain that does indeed look like that; some even say it looks like the back of a Stegosaurus. We also went through a tunnel of the same name to get there.

Hakkenzan Winery is an interesting place, unlike any other winery we’ve been to in various countries (and we’ve been to many!). The location under the peaks is very pretty, and the notion of producing wine in Japan’s northernmost island is new and fairly revolutionary.

Trial viticulture started in 2006, and the building was constructed in 2011, the same year the first vintage was produced. It’s apparently a co-op with around 120 shareholders.

It’s not a traditional-looking wine place, but then it’s not in a traditional wine growing area! The building and surrounds are a bit ramshackle and the rooms set out a bit haphazardly, and not well signed or organized inside. If we weren’t with Satoshi and Max we wouldn’t really know what was going on, but then if we weren’t with them we wouldn’t have even known about such a place.


Us in front of winery building


Vines labeled in Japanese and English

seibelbottleTasting is offered but isn’t well set out—just some open bottles on a table with small plastic glasses, sip-size.

But, that being said, the guy was very friendly when approached in his office to the side of the tasting area and this whole idea of wine here in Hokkaido is a relatively new venture. So, they are still in the process of learning how to do it. The terroir is totally different to, say, France or South Africa; the cultivars are different; and therefore the resulting wines are too.

The soil of the vineyard is clayey with a lot of gravel. He said that in the test field they are cultivating about 25 varieties of grapes, including Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.



Kerner grapes


Riesling vines

The rows of vines outside are neatly labeled and it was fun to see those in such an awesome setting and all with English and Japanese names. We noticed some German cultivars (such as Kerner, Seibel, and Riesling) and some hybrids, so it’s still an experiment really. The owners are searching for new cultivars that work here and therefore produce a good local wine that reflects the terroir. In the vineyard there are not many vines though and some are yielding rather meager bunches. As I said, a whole new venture. It’s a small operation, but you don’t need many vines to make some wine.



Sauvignon blanc grapes

meagreWe tried a couple of wines: they weren’t great (not unexpected, given the climate and soil) but the Portland white had a good flavor. This is a white cultivar that grows well in the US Great Lakes region too. They working on improving things and appear to be making some profit.

When Satoshi asked, the owner did have a pamphlet in English. We discovered that one of their wines is called Kanonz. The name comes from the name of the mountain, as another name for Hakkenzan is Kannon-iwayama. Kannon is the name of one of the Japanese Bosatsu (Buddhist deities). The wine is a blend of Seibel, Merlot and Riesling.

They also sell jams, sauces, sparkling water and a few curios.redgrapesEntrance and tasting are free.

It’s about 20km SW of Sapporo city and easily drivable.


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Asparagus field on Hokkaido


Plaque at rest area


View point, but Ezo Fuji is shrouded

Hail to the Asparagus!

Hokkaido, Japan: Boyonakayama Rest Area, on Hokkaido Route 230

Satoshi and Max planned a big day trip out of Sapporo one day, making a loop around the south part of the island. We saw and did many things, such as visiting a winery; having a great soba lunch; and visiting Lake Toya to look at the new volcanic mountain, Showa Shinzan. I’ll cover those later.

On our way to Lake Toya we stopped at Boyonakayama, which has been open since 1993. This is a big rest area and shopping/souvenir place at the top of the mountain pass in Lake Shikotsu-Toya National Park in the south of Hokkaido. People stop here, as on a clear day there are good views across to the local Fuji Mountain, called “Ezo-Fuji”. “Ezo” is the old word for Hokkaido, so it means “Hokkaido’s Fuji”. Apparently this mountain does look a lot like the original Mount Fuji, but we never got to see it, as the whole area was shrouded in mist.




Asparagus statue

Close to the large building at the summit is a statue of a young monk who came here at age 19 from Kyoto to help build roads, which must have been quite a feat in those days.

There’s also a marker explaining that this area was the first place in Hokkaido to grow asparagus, now a very popular crop. There’s also a modern sculpture of asparagus spears—honoring a popular vegetable. A lot of fun to see and to talk about.

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Summer view to mountains


Winter view


Entrance to the farm stall


Many creatures on the approach road


This is always a good place to have lunch in the Stellenbosch winelands area as it’s easy to get to, the prices are very reasonable and it’s a lot of fun.

Mooiberge means “pretty mountains” in Afrikaans and the view out here certainly is that, as it’s right below the Helderberg Mountains.




A Springbok (SA rugby team) and a Wallaby (Australian team)


A Stormer (Cape rugby team)

On the R44 road between Somerset West and Stellenbosch, this landmark farm stall is hard to miss, as much of the property is “fenced” with a line of colorful art creatures/’sculptures’ (can we call them sculptures?) that the farm calls scarecrows and transportation creations. They are colorful, whimsical, and sometimes naughty scarecrows! Many of them are animals representing various sports teams, both South African and other countries. For many people, Mooiberge is “that farm with the crazy oversupply of scarecrows.” We wondered how it all began and in fact, the menu explains some of the history.

It started off in the 1950s as a farm stall selling strawberries, run by the Zetler family (Samuel and Josie Zetler and 5 sons), who later added sweet peppers too. As the roadside cart grew too small, they built a bricks and mortar stall that blossomed/mushroomed out into what we see today—a colorful, sprawling complex.


Some of the crafts in the modern farm stall


Cape gooseberries for sale


What about some Mama Africa’s hot sauce?


Thirsty Scarecrow play area

Some might say it’s a kitschy produce market-cum-wine shop-cum-market for bottled goods (jams, sauces, olive oils for example), cakes, nuts, biltong, local crafts, wine barrels, fruits and vegetables. But, it’s undoubtedly a lot of fun. We once bought a bottle of wine for R25—one of their advertised specials. They seem to have many of the specials for various airlines.

It’s a great place to take kids in the strawberry season (November-January or February), as the strawberry picking is very popular. There’s a wonderful play area called the Thirsty Scarecrow, which the kids in our group loved on the last visit.





Caroline M, Rod M, and Anthea K enjoy lunch

Over the years we’ve been here many times to eat lunch and it’s always been great. In the winter, there’s obviously no strawberry picking and the rows of plants are all covered in plastic. But, it’s still a great lunch place, as it has a fun atmosphere because of the setting and very good food—a tasty meal, with very generous servings, of fresh, locally-sourced ingredients.

The outside deck where you can sit looks out over the kids play area and across the pepper/strawberry fields to the mountains, the whole view enlivened by the bright, quirky, animals (mostly) sculptures—which in general you’d say don’t fit into this (wine) environment, and yet they’ve become a local fixture and a tourist feature and attraction.


Miss E at entrance to Farmers Kitchen


One of their delicious salads


Rod M has the lamb burger

The restaurant is called the Farmer’s Kitchen, which re-opened in September 2011 after new owner Kelly Zetler revamped it, to “French colonial meets rustic countryside comfort”. Its hours are 8:30am-5pm, and they specialize in breakfast, snack meals and lunch, with many dishes featuring strawberries in season.

At different times over the years, members of our party have tried many items on the menu. Some of the favorites are a huge lamb burger with Greek-style cucumber-yoghurt sauce; an avocado and chicken wrap; a bacon, brie and walnut pizza, served with salad; a parma ham and fresh fig salad; and a fresh salad with pomegranate and goat cheese. They also have very good meat and cheese platters. The house wine is Du Toitskloof sauvignon blanc and there is also beer, hard cider and all kinds of cold and hot drinks.


Another great salad


We look down at rugby player scarecrows from the restaurant


More creatures

Also in the Mooiberge complex is the Thirsty Scarecrow Bistro-Pub, open Mon-Sun 11am-11:30pm.

Mooiberge the Farm Stall is open Mon-Sun 8:30am-6pm.

This should definitely be on the list for anyone visiting the Cape Town and Stellenbosch winelands.


Mooiberge’s first tractor

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We approach the Dead Sea from the desert hills

We approach the Dead Sea from the desert hills

Even from our bus we can see that the north and south parts of the Dead Sea are getting separated

Even from our bus we can see that the north and south parts of the Dead Sea are getting separated

One of the world’s first health resorts, the Dead Sea has a far from healthy future.

The Dead Sea is in the Jordan Rift Valley and its main tributary is the River Jordan. It is actually a salt lake. It is 304m deep (997 ft), making it the deepest hypersaline lake in the world. In 2011 the salinity was measured at 34.2% (9.6 times as salty as the ocean), which makes it one of the world’s saltiest bodies of water. However, since about 1950 the water level has dropped about 130 feet, and it’s estimated that now the level drops around 3 feet every year. It’s called the Dead Sea as its composition cannot support aquatic life. At 428 m (1407 ft) below sea level, it’s the lowest place in the world—a mind-boggling concept anyway, even before considering seas and salts.

The mountain desert is a fascinating, surreal kind of place

The mountain desert is a fascinating, surreal kind of place

If you look hard, you can see camels in the distance

If you look hard, you can see camels in the distance

As we drove from Jerusalem down to the Dead Sea, we passed a large board announcing “Sea Level” and then markers every so often, saying “minus 200m” for example. As we drove down, the landscape changed from groves of date palm trees and many vegetable tunnels to much drier and sandier with amazing rock formations. Some wild camels roam, and at a couple of petrol stations locals had camels, decked out ready for tourists. As we went along, it was really difficult to work out what’s Israel, what’s West Bank, what’s off-limits behind walls. Huge walls snake along the hills and the Israelis say they’ve helped cut crime etc. It’s hard even for the locals, such as Shani our Jerusalem guide, who lives on a kibbutz near the north-east part of the Dead Sea—Jericho is very close to his kibbutz but he’s not allowed to go there, because it’s in Zone A.

As we drove down, the guide explained that the Dead Sea is shrinking, for a combination of reasons: less rain,

A person floating in the Dead Sea

A person floating in the Dead Sea

less water coming in from the River Jordan (because of dams), less drainage into the Sea, and more evaporation, much linked to various salts extraction. We also had to go on a detour, to skirt a huge sinkhole, one of many that have appeared due to the change in the Dead Sea levels.

The sea is so dense with salts that it’s basically impossible to actually swim in it— you can just wade in and then float on your back. The weather was a little chilly and very windy when we were there, so I couldn’t actually get in and test it for myself. But we did dip our hands in— the water feels sort of thick and a bit oily. Strange.

Welcome to En Boqeq resort area. Note the 3 languages used

Welcome to En Boqeq resort area. Note the 3 languages used

One of the huge resort hotels in En Boqeq

One of the huge resort hotels in En Boqeq

Health benefits of the Dead Sea. It has attracted visitors from around the Mediterranean for thousands of years. In the Bible, it was a place of refuge for King David, and was one of the world’s first health resorts, for Herod the Great. It has supplied a variety of products, from asphalt for Egyptian mummification, to potash for fertilizer. People also use the salt and the minerals to create cosmetics and herbal sachets.

At the Dead Sea resort area of En Bokek, where the conference was held, is a cluster of high-rise resort hotels with spas and special pools, and a series of small malls with a variety of cafes and shops for the visitors. Many of the flyers and signs are in another language, besides the usual three of Hebrew, Arabic and English: Russian. Apparently they get lots of Russian tourists and visitors (although the numbers are down right now due to the dip in the Russian economy), some of whom come for medical tourism. Our one tour guide told us that some Russian medical insurances will even cover some of these treatments!

Dear Sea herbs for sale---note the Russian language too

Dead Sea herbs for sale—note the Russian language too

Black Mud from the Dead Sea

Black Mud from the Dead Sea

Many of the shops sell all kinds of beauty and health products that have ingredients that come from the Dead Sea, and are supposedly very healthy—although one Israeli lady from the conference told me that there is very little empirical evidence to prove this claim. Supposedly, the salts are very good for skin ailments, like rashes, eczema and psoriasis, if you rub some of the water on the skin area. This very robust industry of salts, cosmetics, and creams etc is actually part of the problem affecting the health of the Dead Sea. There are conflicting interests between the tourist and industrial sectors and they are destroying what they depend on.

The local Regional Council, working with the Dead Sea Preservation

A typical shop sign

A typical shop sign

Government Company (with help from the Kingdom of Belgium and US Aid), is making an effort to try and stem this. They’ve set up information boards explaining the problems and have prepared a walking trail, on both sides of the Sea (Israel and Jordan), to help people appreciate unique natural features and heritage of the region (and then try to save it). I walked a bit of the trail and it’s fascinating to see what can grow here if it’s fostered, using the drip irrigation method. They say the desert landscapes of the Dead Sea have changed a lot over the last few decades, on both sides of the Sea, due to mismanagement of the Jordan River and Dead Sea ecosystems.

Greenery in En Boqeq

Greenery in En Boqeq

Looking down on the south part of the Dead Sea you can easily see some of the salt extraction ponds

Looking down on the south part of the Dead Sea you can easily see some of the salt extraction ponds

They also say that Israeli and Jordanian industries that intentionally aggravate the evaporation of water to harvest minerals are responsible for accelerating the yearly decline of the Dead Sea. Also, the evaporation process causes the annual accumulation of 20 cubic meters of salt residue at the bottom of the pools, which raises the seabed and water level, constantly threatening to flood the surrounding areas, especially in hotels and other infrastructures, like roads.

In short, a very real, serious problem. It’s a shame, as the area is gorgeous, and the Dead Sea such an unusual geographical feature.

The view from our hotel window---how gorgeous is that?

The view from our hotel window—how gorgeous is that?



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Now for something very light-hearted.

What do Yaktrax look like? Something like the tracks of the elusive Bigfoot from North America, or the Yeti in the Himalayas—creatures that some people swear they have seen? Bigfoot, also known as Sasquatch, is supposedly a cryptid ape-or hominid-like creature that lives in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. The Yeti, also known as the Abominable Snowman, is also an ape-like cryptid that lives in the Himalayan Mountains of Nepal and Tibet.

Maybe Yaktrax look like this?

In deep snow

In deep snow









Well, we’ve unearthed the secret of the Yaktrax, but the mystery of Bigfoot and the Yeti still remain. Scientists say the existence of these creatures is a combination of folklore, misinformation and hoax. And yet the stories persist.

Recently, we’ve had some very snowy and icy weather where we live, making walking outside a bit treacherous. My husband prefers to walk to his lab at the university, so we decided to buy him some removable, strap-on cleats to make walking a little less hazardous.

Rod's Yaktrax before he strapped them on

Rod’s Yaktrax before he strapped them on

Yak on steep path

Yak on steep path

Voila the Yak Trax, a very clever play on Yak Tracks. And the YakTrax work very well.

Yaks are bovids (Bos grunniens and Bos mutus), part of the cattle family. They are known as animals that have an amazing ability to walk and climb in the Himalayas, at high altitudes and in snow. Supposedly they are very nimble, so someone who can have tracks like yaks will hopefully also be more nimble in winter weather conditions.


Driving up into the mountains of Yunnan, we stop to let the Jeep cool

Driving up into the mountains of Yunnan, we stop to let the Jeep cool

Rod M with our Chinese hosts in the meadow with some of the Gayal cattle

Rod M with our Chinese hosts in the meadow with some of the Gayal cattle

We have not been to the Himalayas, but we have been high in the mountains of Yunnan Province in China, bordering Tibet—but only in summer. On the way up to a research station, where my husband was going to study their herd of domesticated Gayal cattle (bos frontalis), we saw a few domesticated yaks, climbing up a steep path off the steep road, and lower down we saw a couple on a large meadow, decked out with colorful panniers.

The Gayal are found in northeast India, Bangladesh, northern Burma and Yunnan, usually in hill forests. The Gayal are not the same as yaks, but still very interesting, and they are also pretty nimble. As far as I could tell, they look very similar to yaks too, except the horns are flatter and straighter.

A handsome beast

A handsome beast


A herd of Gayal cattle

A herd of Gayal cattle





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