Not quite lost in the weeds

I’ve started soaking Sweet Pea (Lathyrus odoratus) seeds that I saved from last year’s garden, in preparation for planting in this year’s flower beds.

The seeds are hard and dry after a winter spent in a zip-lok bag in the crisper drawer of my refrigerator, and a day or two in warm water will increase the likelihood of germination. I’ve built a sort of bamboo trellis that will support the vines when they begin to grow; I still have to come up with a system to protect them from the neighbor’s chickens, who dig relentlessly in any disturbed soil, without much concern for what I may have planted there.

Sweet Peas are a common garden flower, somewhat old-fashioned, but widely grown for the bright colors and strong sweet scent. They became very popular in 19th century England, and a wide range of colors were bred by Victorian gardeners. The ones I grow are “heirloom” varieties, which means that the flowers do have a strong scent, unlike the larger and showier florist varieties in which the smell has been largely bred out in favor of visual splash. I’ve mixed in a few seeds of a species called Everlasting Pea, Lathyrus latifolius, just for the fun of it; the L. latifolius comes back year after year here; even though the flowers only occur in shades of pink to white, and don’t have much of a scent, I’m a bit curious to see if a perennial hybrid is possible.

The “peas” themselves, the seed pods, are not only inedible, but poisonous if eaten in quantity, causing a condition called lathyrism (or neurolathyrism) which can be crippling: in men, particularly, the muscles of the buttocks waste away and the victim becomes unable to move his legs. The condition crops up from time to time in famine situations, especially in warm climates, where Sweet Peas and their relative the Grass Pea, Lathyrus sativus, are eaten when nothing else is available.

The sugars in beans consist largely of raffinose and stachyose (the “-ose” ending always signifies a sugar), which humans are unable to digest. We do, however, play host to several varieties of intestinal bacteria that can digest the bean sugars quite nicely — although producing considerable amounts of nitrogen and carbon dioxide in the process. I’m not going to go into that in any more detail: I think you get the picture.

Interestingly enough, most beans and peas are toxic to some degree. Red or kidney beans can be quite poisonous if eaten raw or undercooked: African cooks routinely grind the beans and then ferment them to eliminate the poisons (primarily a toxin called lectin phytohaemagglutinin.) In most other cultures the beans are soaked overnight then cooked thoroughly (to make dishes such as chili, red beans and rice, and three-bean salad, around my house.)  Thorough cooking breaks down the toxin and renders the beans harmless. (So-called “green beans” are actually just very immature pods of one or another variety of beans, eaten before the seeds have developed, and are quite safe eaten raw or only lightly cooked.)


I realize that all of this sounds very “Better Homes and Gardens”, and not at all typical of the sort of thing I usually post. As we move into Spring, however, you’ll be seeing more posts like this here, not because the political season isn’t providing an ample supply of fodder for blog posts, but precisely because the supply is so ample.

Although I believe that the political process is incredibly important, I also believe that it can eat our lives if we let it.   Without maintaining interests outside of politics, we have no way to place the issues in their proper context, and our perspectives inside politics become overwhelmed by the weight of information and discussion surrounding the decisions we will all be asked to make in November.

In short, we all have to remind ourselves from time to time to get a life, especially in an election year.

So I’ll talk about politics here often enough, but also about other things; I hope that some occasional gardening tips, literary discussion, and cute-pet-stories will help us all digest the politics a little more effectively, and keep the socially-unacceptable side effects to a minimum.

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