Fall is a busy time for decorating, second only to Christmas, and the period when vegetables are valued more for their beauty than their flavor.
Back when America was largely rural, bringing in the harvest was cause for celebration. Corn stalks were bundled into “fodder shocks” – stalks, ears, tassels and all – and stacked upright around light poles and near entries, and fed to livestock.
Then came Halloween pumpkins, and Thanksgiving with its fresh fruit and colorful gourds gracing dining room tables.
“We don’t just decorate for Halloween anymore but for the entire fall season,” said Amanda Sears, an extension agent with the University of Kentucky’s Department of Horticulture.
Many farmers and roadside retailers make financial hay selling multicolored ears of Indian corn, pumpkins, gourds, corn stalks and straw bales for home decorating.
“We have some commercial growers in Nebraska who started with gourds and have expanded into Indian corn and little straw bales – the whole package,” said Dale Lindgren, a plant-breeding specialist with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Such “ornamentals” are sold to big-box stores as well as farmers’ markets.
The top three items used in fall decorating are pumpkins, gourds and Indian corn, said Brad Bergefurd, an Ohio State University horticulturist who researches ornamental corn as a niche crop for area farmers.
“Back 20 or more years ago when I was raising it on my own farm, ornamental corn was pretty blah,” Bergefurd said. “But there have been a lot of advances from crossbreeding the old varieties. Ears are neater now with better sizes and shapes. More colors are available. More people are raising and selling it, so it’s easier to find.”
Indian corn also is called calico corn, flint corn and maize. Its colors range from red and maroon to cream and black.
“Consumers don’t want just one or two colors but as many as they can get,” Bergefurd said. “I’m fond of the pinks and blues. You also can get ears with kernels in red and green and white – traditional Christmas colors.”
Most varieties aren’t eaten, although some can be ground into flour or meal, and others, mostly miniatures, can be used as popcorn. “It’s pretty starchy once it matures, and doesn’t have much taste,” Bergefurd said.
Indian corn usually is offered in bundles of three or more ears; figure on paying anywhere from $3 to $5 per bundle.
“In some cases, it’s sold stalk and all,” Bergefurd said. “Growers bundle 12 to 20 stalks, pull back the husks, and with the ears showing, it makes a pretty arrangement. More and more of the breeders are working on stalk coloration, too – mainly red – to make the displays even more colorful.”
One trend is integrating Indian corn, gourds, pumpkins and squash with ornamental plants still in the ground, said Lindgren. “Don’t forget to work the landscape into your fall decorating,” he said. “Things like peppers and kales can be blended into flower gardens. They’re absolutely gorgeous.”
Lindgren said people are getting more imaginative in using ornamentals. “Ten years ago it was petunias and marigolds. Now it’s sweet potatoes, peppers and leafy vegetables. The whole seasonal thing has exploded,” he said.
People tend to pay more for decorative plants than for those grown simply for eating, Sears said. “They’re willing to buy into the entertainment value. Pumpkins, the primary example.”
Other ornamentals that can liven up landscapes and homes include:
- Peppers: The dark green foliage contrasts nicely with the many fruit colors, including some that mature into Christmas-like reds and greens. “The fruits of these plants are edible, although usually extremely hot and often bitter, so be cautious about eating them,” Lindgren said.
- Flowering kale: Its colors intensify as temperatures drop in the fall. The green outer leaves surround an assortment of crinkled white or reddish-purple inner leaves, making the plant look like a large flower.
- Leaf lettuces, radishes, mustard, spinach and low-growing herbs: Look for lettuce cultivars with curly leaves, red coloration or deeply lobed foliage, Lindgren said. “These mixes also include radicchio, endive and other edible greens.”
- Beans and other vine crops: Scarlet runner beans often are placed alongside flower seeds in garden stores or seed catalogs. “Although they are grown for their showy red flower, the pods are edible,” Lindgren said. Squash, gourds, pumpkins and cucumbers also are vine crops with lush foliage and showy blossoms, plus interesting fruit.
- Eggplant: The fruit matures into many colors, from white, violet and lavender to the standard dark black-purple. Shapes range from egg-like to cylindrical.
- Swiss chard and beets: Swiss chard has bright and distinct ribbed leaves with stems ranging from red to yellow. “While most people grow beets for their edible root, the tops also are edible and can be quite ornamental, creating interest in plant borders or salad bowls,” Lindgren said.
- Sweet potatoes: Ornamental sweet potatoes have become popular, primarily as container plants. “They’re valued for their trailing vines with lime-green, purple and multicolored foliage.”
With harvest season winding down, it’s time for dessert. How about some candy, real candy, from the garden?
Of course you can’t just pluck a squishy marshmallow from a marshmallow bush or tree. But marshmallows -real marshmallows – were originally made from the candied roots of a plant. And that plant is aptly called “marsh mallow.”
You can grow marsh mallow, and if you do, now would be a good time to dig up a few pieces of root, candy them and compare them with the fluffy product sold under the same name in plastic bags.
Those bagged marshmallows, incidentally, are no longer made from marsh mallow roots. They are made from a mixture of sugars, egg whites and gelatin beaten together.
As you scratch into the soil at the base of a marsh mallow plant, the resemblance of marsh mallow roots to marshmallow candy becomes immediately apparent. It doesn’t take long for a plant to develop fat white roots. Even after only a couple of years, roots might get as fat as 3/4 inches in diameter, radiating out just below the soil surface.
You can chop off a couple of these roots, bring them into the kitchen, scrape them clean, then slice them into marshmallow-size rounds … well, miniature marshmallow-size rounds. Back in the garden, the plant hardly knows it’s had a few roots removed.
The candying process, which is described in various old cookbooks for things such as citron peels and angelica roots, works well for marsh mallow roots. The process begins with boiling the root pieces to soften them. This step takes about 1/2 hour.
The next step is to pour off the water and cover the marshmallows-to-be with a syrup made by heating a mixture of 2 parts sugar to 1 part water. If nothing else, homemade marshmallows rival the commercial ones for sweetness.
Finally, root pieces are boiled in the syrup until almost all the liquid evaporates. Once everything cools and hardens a bit, why not assemble a taste panel to see how these old-fashioned, real marshmallows sit on modern palates?
Besides being supersweet, these old-fashioned marshmallows will probably be a bit tough. But they should have a squishiness that bears a vague resemblance to the store-bought product.
TRIAL BY FIRE
You might also want to subject your home-made marshmallows to the fire test. Stick one on the end of an awl and singe it with a blowtorch, if that’s most convenient for a quick test, or go the whole route, with stick and an outdoor fire.
You’ll find that the home-made marshmallow will brown and give off an odor similar to commercial marshmallows. Home-made marshmallows will not collapse into goo, though.
MARSH MALLOW FLOWERS
Even if you don’t become enthusiastic for home-made marshmallow candy, you might still want to grow marsh mallow plants for their flowers.
They are as pretty as you would expect from a plant related to such beauties as hibiscus, rose-of-Sharon and hollyhock.
Marsh mallow makes a sprawling mound about 4 feet high and wide, its stems clothed all summer long in velvety green leaves and blossoms looking like pink hoop skirts.
Although native to coastal marshes from New York down to Florida, marsh mallow will thrive without salt or boggy soil.
Among the native fauna that enjoy this plant are deer, which eat the stems. I wonder if they would like the roots, candied?
Lee Reich writes this gardening column for the Associated Press. He is the author of a number of gardening books, including “Weedless Gardening,” “The Pruning Book” and “Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden.”