Garden nasturtium

Leaf of garden nasturtium with raindrops
Leaf of garden nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)

August 2013

Garden nasturtium‘s large shield-shaped leaves gather water drops (dew or rain) like solar panels gather sunlight.

On a horizontal leaf, droplets slide towards the depression at the center. In the morning, a giant lenticular drop reflects my image on its tense convex surface — a dome that wiggles in the breeze, a drinking pool for the visiting hummingbird.

I wish there were something similar for sunlight, a way of collecting a small pool of it, into which I could dip a finger or a brush and paint the day on the canvas of time stretching ahead.

If the leaf is in a vertical position, drops glide on its slightly parabolic surface and end up hanging from the bottom edge, suspended over the abyss.

Nasturtium plants exhibit a tendency to take over our garden. Besides embracing the house in several spots with sometimes suffocating enthusiasm, they worm their way into the jasmine bush, wrap themselves around draining pipes, blanket the compost pile, emerge where I least expect them.

Sturdy stems push their way forward with determination: there is no crevice, however small, they won’t explore. They find plenty of opportunities around our house, tugged by tectonic forces stronger than its foundations.

Garden nasturtium flowers in bloom
Garden nasturtium flowers in bloom

The yellow nasturtium flowers compete in brightness with the sun during the day and the orange ones out-orange the setting sun. They are also winners on the table.

Raw nasturtium flowers pop into a flash of flowery pepperiness in the mouth, firecrackers exploding with flavor rather than sound. They brighten a butter lettuce or steamed snap bean salad with both their color and their zest. Tossed into a skillet with cooked dark leafy greens, their splash of brightness is like a lightning fracturing the darkness of the night sky.

Pressed between two layers of pasta dough, nasturtium petals make an edible “stained glass” that charms the eyes.

A harvest of garden nasturtium's seedpods
My harvest of garden nasturtium’s seedpods

In flowers left to complete their life cycle, seedpods develop as the petals wilt and fall off. They cluster in groups of three or four, light green and succulent. They are called “poor man’s capers,” I learned. One evening around sunset, it didn’t take me long to harvest a cup. I carried them to the kitchen on a large nasturtium leaf and pickled them in distilled white vinegar. When the right combination of ingredients presented itself, they played their role well and henceforth will be called “lucky woman’s capers.”


© 2015-2017 Simona Carini

The present moment between tropical fruit and a volcano

'Ōhi'a Lehua and ferns growing on volcano's lava
‘Ōhi’a Lehua and ferns growing on lava

January 2014

Life sometimes makes us stop in the moment and reminds us that the only time we have is that moment.

At the Maku’u Farmers’ Market, along the Kea’au/Pahoa Highway bypass road (Big Island), a mainlander like me had only the present to taste the phantasmagoria of fruits on display, like papayas, soft-spiked rambutans, fluorescent fuchsia dragon fruit. There was no hoarding for further than the near future: most fruit was perfectly ripe and would barely stand the trip back to our lodging. And there was no stashing the luggage with abiu or citrus fruit or rambutan for a delayed enjoyment back home in California, because that fruit could not leave the island in my backpack.

A ross sapote (the shape and size of a deep yellow tomato), a yellow sapote (called egg fruit because the consistency of its pulp is reminiscent of hard-boiled egg yolk), a mamey sapote (its scratchy brown skin enveloping salmon-colored flesh), a bagful of brilliant rambutans, a persimmon so ripe it almost fell apart when I touched it, all found space in my shopping bag. A papaya, several avocados and abius, a bunch of mini bananas and an assortment of citrus fruits were already in the kitchen of our lodging.

A few hours after the expedition to the market, we set out to reach the viewing spot we had visited four years earlier to look from a safe distance at lava emerging from an underground channel and diving into the ocean: After sunset, as the light dimmed, the glow from the lava had set the darkening sky ablaze.1

We parked the car where lava flow had put an end to Highway 130 and started walking over the black expanse of natural asphalt sparkling under the afternoon sun. The brilliant blue sky was marbled with light gray clouds ready to congregate into 15-minute showers.

We soon developed a feeling that things were different from our prior visit. When we arrived at a sign that prevented us from proceeding, we found ourselves totally confused. The houses built on the lava field were closer to us than we remembered and the bright yellow stripes on the lava that in the past had guided our steps were nowhere to be seen.

A county security guard arrived and cleared our confusion: a portion of the road we had driven on four years ago, the parking lot where we had left the car, the lava upon which we walked to reach the viewing area were all gone, covered by the flow from a recent eruption. There, earth is still being born, every day, and the landscape changes at human-scale speed, in fact, at visitor-scale speed.

Under a boundless sky, caressed by a sweet breeze, in a moment of timeless perfection, impermanence was the only certainty and the present was the only time we had to take in the landscape around us. Small clouds of vapor along the ridge towards the main crater were the telltale sign of lava flowing below the surface there. Any day, a crack might open where we were standing and lava start flowing from there into the Pacific Ocean nearby, pushing everything along its path to plunge it into the blue waves.

But even the stark surface of lava hardened by cool air is not permanent. In time, in the cracks, ‘Ama’u ferns unfold their brilliant green fronds and ‘Ōhi’a Lehua trees grow, their brush-like red blossoms sparkling against  jet black lava.2

Later in the afternoon, on the road from Kapoho3 to Pahoa, among handwritten signs posted on trees that ask drivers to slow down for kids at play or invite them to join a yoga class, we read one saying:  “It’s only a matter of time.” Indeed it is.

“Do you know that I love you?” I told my husband.

And once we arrived at our lodging, I took an abiu from the fruit basket, cut it into half and plunged a small spoon into its sweet, translucent pulp, which has a custard consistency and a flavor reminiscent of a lightly sweetened caramel flan.

The only time I had was that moment and it tasted superb.


1 This post on my food blog has photos from that day and evening.

2 Hawaiian lava comes in two types, which differ in appearance, but are chemically alike. Pahoehoe has a smoother and ropey surface where ‘a’a is jagged and clinkery. The ‘Ōhi’a Lehua (Metrosideros polymorpha) is a pioneer plant on new lava and a dominant tree in most mature Hawaiian forests.

3 The town of Kapoho was completely destroyed by lava in January 1960.

P.S. On June 27th, less than six months after the visit that inspired the piece above, a new eruption started and is still ongoing (though the leading front has stopped a few days ago, about 500 meters from the town of Pahoa).


© 2015-2017 Simona Carini