About 30 years ago, my brother the horticulturalist planted juniper shrubs along the west face of our parents’ house in rural Saskatchewan. Under Mom’s benign care, they throve, but eventually succumbed to legginess and the scraggy look of a once-stylish haircut overdue for a trim. As you may already know, Dave and I moved in eight years ago, when my folks were ready to retire. Last summer, I hacked and chopped and dug at length, ultimately removing all vestiges of the junipers. After consultation with the local nursery, I planted a pair of Wentworth highbush cranberries, a spreading shrub with maple-like leaves. It produces edible berries and great fall colour.
But plants take time to spread, so this spring, hoping to minimize weeds and labour, I filled the space between the bushes with sunflowers fronted by California poppies and calendula. I expect the flowers will self-seed in subsequent years, until the gap closes. That west side will be a blaze of colour all late summer and autumn.
A sunflower is a complicated thing — a composite, not a single flower. What look like petals in a fringe of amber, gold, or garnet around the exterior are really ray florets, each individual flowers. What look like seed pods in the centre are in reality disc florets forming a complex helix. They too are all separate blossoms. Together, they form the beauty we call a sunflower, irresistible to honeybees and butterflies, and one of nature’s supremely complicated designs.
It’s a lovely and ironic spiral link, to draw honey and honeybees close again. Mom was a beekeeper for decades while she lived here, and she kept me supplied with honey for my sons, my tea, my cooking and my baking for most of the years I lived in Calgary. Honey is what I have returned to as sweetener in my tea and coffee; now that the local beekeepers have begun harvesting their bees’ labours, I bring home tubs of honey from the weekly farmers’ markets in nearby towns that Mom and I frequent.
Honey in its raw state, (i.e. unpasteurized) has been proven to have antibacterial properties, healing wounds inside and outside the body. It reduces nighttime coughs, a boon when dealing with croupy babies and cranky teenagers. Water sweetened with honey is my preferred endurance beverage when I go out on a long run, and honey may have a role in fighting cancer and heart disease. But all that aside, honey is delicious.
On hot August days when the oven is a verboten word, instead of offering a cookie or a slice of pie, serve a good cheese — I’m partial to a yummy blue or any of my aged nutty favourites, Parmigiano-Reggiano, crystalline old cheddar, high-mountain Comté or Gruyère — draped with a drizzle of fine honey. Your tummy will turn cartwheels. No cooking, no fuss. Just the labour of our dairy animals and honeybees. Serve it with a homemade ginger ale sweetened with honey. We can cook another day, but first we eat the fruits of summer.
Homemade Honey-Lemon Ginger Ale
Good for the gut, and delicious too. Makes about 2 litres of syrup ready to be diluted.
- 6 lemons, thoroughly washed
- 1 large hand of ginger, peeled
- 1-2 c. honey, to taste
- 2 litres water
Use a zester or small sharp knife to remove all the yellow pith (“zest”) from the lemons. Put the zest in a heavy-bottomed pot. Juice the lemons, strain- ing out the seeds, and add the juice to the pot. Finely slice the ginger into matchsticks and add to the pot along with the honey and water. Bring to a simmer, stirring until the honey melts. Simmer for 15 minutes, then turn off the heat, cover the pot snugly and let steep for an hour. Strain, discarding the solids. Store the syrup in a covered bottle in the fridge.
To use, add syrup to taste to sparkling water. In winter, heat the syrup and serve straight without dilution as a cough treatment, or turn it into a toddy, enlivened with a splash of rum and a bit of butter.