Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Portland’s Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden: April showers and lots of flowers

When I was a wee little girl, I loved to throw on my rubber boots and run outside during spring rainstorms. This caused my mother more than a little grief when I wandered a bit too far a few times. But I loved the solitude from being enveloped in a steady downpour, which kept most everyone else inside and drowned out any background noise. It was just me and the rain and the voluptuous old rhododendrons scattered around our large, sprawling yard.

So today I have déjà vu all over again as I wander alone with my umbrella through lovely Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden in a driving April rain. This beautiful park just south of Reed College in southeast Portland is a lovely place to stroll any time of year—even when it’s not raining. But I highly recommend going on a wet spring day when the flowers are out and dripping with raindrops.

Just in case you didn’t know, west of the Cascades in the Pacific Northwest we grow some of the most beautiful, extravagant rhododendrons in the world. And yes, we do have native rhodies here, although they grow in natural woodlands, like on the slopes of Mount Hood below timberline. Crystal Springs Garden features mostly hybrids, along with azaleas and various other understory flowers and native shrubs.

“Are there many rhodies in bloom yet?” I ask at the entrance.

“Yes, there are some in bloom now, but everything is about three weeks late this year, so it will be better in a few weeks,” the attendant tells me.

After paying the paltry entrance fee of only $3 (and $1 for a booklet guide), I meander across a wooden bridge and down a pathway to a coursing stream and waterfall. With natural springs, ponds, and lake, lots of waterfowl hang out in this park.

Beneath some of the rhodies are sweet hellebores, snowdrops, and a few other flowers I can’t identify. (My mother was the botanist in the family, not me.)

Walking in the rain past beds of mature rhododendrons and ponds fed by natural springs, I’m five years old all over again. It’s just me and the rain and the rhodies. And plenty of ducks, swans, and geese.

When You Go
The park is open from April through September from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and 'til 6 p.m. the rest of the year. There is no admission fee after 6 p.m. and during the fall and winter. Planning a wedding or a private party? You can reserve and have a catered event at Crystal Springs. Although Crystal Springs is a City of Portland park, it’s maintained by mostly volunteers from the Rhododendron Society.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Spring Teases Seattle

For a few too brief, glorious days this past weekend, the sun shone in Seattle.  And the whole city smiled.

Mind you, we didn't have warm, cloudless days.  But the clouds were stacked up on the horizon rather than directly overhead. And with temps finally over 50 degrees Fahrenheit, it was a typical early spring weekend here in the Upper Left Hand corner.

So what do Seattleites do when the sun comes out after months of damp, chilly, and gray weather? Like many, I headed down to the beach at Golden Gardens on Puget Sound for a stroll (after mowing the lawn). 

With a breeze, it was still a bit chilly.  A few hardy souls bared some skin to soak up some rays for Vitamin D-deprived skin. Many took to the water in their boats. One couple threw a linen tablecloth over a picnic table for a waterfront meal.

One lucky bride had a marvelous March day for a wedding at the historic bathhouse on the beach, beating the odds for weather this time of year.  Her sparkly blue ballet flats mirrored the brilliance of the sky overhead.

 Even the wildlife seemed happy for the sunshine and relative calm of a (finally!) spring day. Turtles sunbathed in the pond at the north end of the park, and Barrow's goldeneye and Pacific brant ducks floated languidly on the Sound just offshore.

But most of all, I was just happy to bear witness to that magical meeting of sea and sand and sky as the seasons shifted here on the Salish Sea.

How have you celebrated the arrival of spring?

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Why We Live Here: Signs of Spring in Western Washington

With our especially chilly and wet March this year, most Northwesterners are getting impatient for warmer and sunnier days.  I was tempted to hop on a jet and join a friend returning to Phoenix this week (80 degrees, sunny, and dry!), but work obligations keep me tethered here. 

So instead I take  a walk through a lowland forest in Seattle's Carkeek Park during a  welcome sunbreak this afternoon. 

And I fall in love all over again with where I live. A lowland Pacific Northwest forest offers up many early spring treasures.

While I love traveling around the world, nowhere do I feel more at home than walking through a temperate Northwest rainforest. Our lush forests west of the Cascades are thick with an underbrush of sword ferns, salal, Oregon grape, and a host of native flowers like bleeding hearts and miner's lettuce.

And plenty of moss of course.

Today I notice lots of sweet spring flowers like red-flowering currant. I even see a few salmonberries starting to blossom. Stinging nettles, a darling of local foodies and chefs, are emerging from the forest duff.

Along Piper's Creek, a tired-looking great blue heron sits streamside, not moving when a toddler and I venture within just a few feet before noticing him.  I wonder if he's nearing the end of his life.  The late fall salmon runs are long gone now, so I'm not sure what drew him here.

With all the rain we've had the last week, there's lots of mud and a little lake around one of the picnic tables in the Carkeek gully. No picnic here today.

Delicate white snowdrops, although past their peak, are in bloom too. These are not native to the Northwest but are remnant bulbs from a long-abandoned orchard.  Since then the snowdrops have multiplied and spread through a patch of forest near a small tributary to Piper's Creek.

The way I see it, my walks in these Northwest woods are as important as eating a healthy diet, regular exercise, and getting enough sleep.  I feel nourished by my walks through all this thriving native plant life.

How about you? What signs of spring have you noticed recently, wherever you live?

Friday, March 9, 2012

Seattle Cupcake Standoff: Almost Too Close to Call

I recently had a birthday that brought two cupcakes into my life. I don't know about you, but cupcakes always make me smile.

Food fads come and go, but I think cupcakes are here to stay.  Seattle is blessed with several fine purveyors of tasty and high-quality cupcakes, with Trophy and Cupcake Royale leading the pack.

Cupcake Royale, open since 2003 in Ballard and now beyond, was Seattle's first cupcake bakery and the first cupcake bakery/cafe in the U. S. outside NYC.  They get kudos from me (and many others) for striving to use mostly local and organic seasonal ingredients.  

Trophy  Cupcakes charged onto the scene in 2007 with the opening of their first shop in Wallingford Center, and got national attention when co-owner Jennifer Shea was invited to bake her cupcakes on Martha Stewart's TV show. Since then they've expanded to four shops around town.

The decor and ambiance of these two competitors is very different. Cupcake Royale shops are noisy and boisterous places full of people buzzed on coffee and sugar. Trophy, however,  with elegant and serene blue and white decor, reminds me of a fancy parlor where my fancy grandmother might have gone for tea and petit fours. But of both these brands make killer delicious cupcakes.

On my birthday  I was presented with a Trophy chocolate cupcake with vanilla frosting. Of course they sell much more exotic varieties like cardamom spice (my favorite), but I always love chocolate and vanilla together. The cake was moist and chocolatey rich, topped with an extravagant dollop of creamy but not cloyingly sweet frosting. Three minutes of nirvana.

Trophy chocolate-vanilla cupcake

Just a day later I was gifted with a Cupcake Royale salted caramel cupcake. This cupcake was featured on American Public Radio's The Splendid Table, because, according to famous Roadfoodie Jane Stern, "a great cupcake needs to be celebrated."  (Just like my birthday!) Goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway, this cupcake was divine. Equally good chocolate cake, generous swirl of caramel buttercream frosting with a hint of salt and chocolate.

Cupcake Royale  salted caramel cupcake

So I used to think that Cupcake Royale had better frosting and Trophy had better cake. I think they've both upped the ante and improved because of the competition. These days it's pretty much a draw.

But if I had to pick, today I say it's the Cupcake Royale salted caramel by a sprinkle.

How about you? What are your favorite cupcakes?

Note:  In fairness, to round this standoff out a bit, I bought myself a Yellow Leaf Mexican chocolate cupcake.  Gotta say, it wasn't in the running. But that's just my taste, maybe yours is different.