May-June 2021

Story by Michelle Sutton; photos courtesy of Bergen Water Gardens and Nursery

The ‘Magnificient’ lotus is the first to bloom each year at the nursery

Halfway between the Villages of Bergen in Genesee County and Churchville in Monroe County lies Bergen Water Gardens and Nursery (hereafter, “Bergen”), where spouses Larry Nau and Lili Liu are growing the largest collection of lotus in the world outside of China. Their property is sixteen acres—and currently they are only using a fraction of that to grow their 400-plus varieties of lotus. “Lili would like the entire sixteen acres to be lotus,” Nau says, smiling. “We do have a lot of energy, and the business has grown significantly in the last five years, so maybe that will come to pass.” 

The nursery has an extensive collection of carnivorous plants as well—oh yes, and waterlilies and orchids and dwarf conifers. Lotus and carnivorous plants are in the biggest demand now at Bergen—more about those in a minute. “Apart from not being able to travel to China as we typically do, the past year has actually been good for our business,” Nau says. “As people are spending more time at home, they’ve been looking for new things to grow.” Bergen has a beautiful user-friendly website, does extensive mail order, and welcomes in-person visitors. 

Larry Nau grew up in Spencerport and went to Churchville-Chili High School, then attended the University of Rochester in the late 1970s, where he studied biology and anthropology and began collecting orchids. While a student, he connected with a biology professor who specialized in alga, which fed Nau’s then-nascent interest in plants; and a medical anthropology professor, who helped Nau get interested in world travel. During his time in school, Nau joined Crossroads Africa, a Peace Corps–like program that actually predated the Peace Corps, and was assigned to Liberia. “Our assignment was supposed to be medical in nature,” he says, “but when we got there, the most pressing need was for a construction crew to rebuild the Hope School for the Deaf in Monrovia.” 

While in Africa, Nau travelled to Sierra Leone and to Ghana, and after graduation, he took a research assignment in Malawi studying cichlids, tropical fish that originate in the lakes of central Africa and are a food source for the region. Nau had collected cichlids and other tropical fish throughout his childhood and was a scuba diver, so he was a good fit for the study. He logged 150 hours in Lake Malawi, studying the cichlids and trying not to be trampled by hippos. “We divers hugged the bottom of the lake so as not to get between mama and baby,” he says. With this second sojourn in Africa, Nau was fully hooked on international travel and over the years has visited Thailand, Australia, Papua New Guinea, and China.    

During college, Nau began his career at Pet World, which had ten privately-owned stores in New York, from Buffalo to Saratoga Springs. “In the late 1970s, ponds became a thing,” Nau says. “My background with fish and plants helped make me Pet World’s go-to person for all things ponds, and I focused on providing the stores the best selection of fish from around the world.” Nau spent forty-one years with Pet World as its livestock buyer and district manager, while simultaneously building up Bergen Water Gardens and Nursery on the land he purchased with his first wife, Sherry.

As Nau grew his business, he got increasingly involved with the International Waterlily and Water Gardening Society (IWGS) and served as its executive director from 2009 to 2011. 

Nau also became president of the Northeast region of the American Conifer Society (ACS) from 2012 to 2014. Through these positions he made meaningful domestic and international connections in the plant world. He gained experience with organizing symposia in Thailand and China for botanical garden directors, horticulturists, and other serious waterlily and lotus collectors and aficionados. These friendships and contacts continue to enrich his life. 

Then came the carnivorous plants, starting with trumpet pitcher plants (Sarracenia spp.) for floating islands in ponds or elements of bog gardens. “I had maybe 20 different varieties of Sarracenia for a long time, but eventually I got more interested in tropical pitchers plants (Nepenthes spp.)—carnivorous plants from Asia,” Nau says. “I imported them, learned to grow them, and now we have one of the better collections in the U.S. Later this year we plan to build our sixth greenhouse, just for the Nepenthes.” Bergen also sells sundews (Drosera spp.), and butterworts (Pinguicula spp.); many of their carnivorous plants can be grown as houseplants on a window sill. Bergen grows more than 25 varieties of Venus fly traps (Dionaea muscipula), highlighting distinctive growth types, colors, and teeth characteristics.

Closeup of Venus fly trap in action

In 2016, Nau’s personal life and business thrived when he and Lili Liu married. Liu had been an accountant in China; when she came to Bergen, she joined the business seamlessly, bringing to it her business skills, love of people, an energy level to match her husband’s, and the ability to speak Mandarin, Cantonese, and Chaozhou. “I handle most of the purchasing and wholesale side of things, while Lili handles most of the social media, marketing, and retail interactions,” Nau says. “She also corresponds with hybridizers aroundChina on WeChat and other platforms.” Typically, Nau and Liu travel to China several times a year to survey plant varieties, meet growers, and make purchasing arrangements. He and Liu sell all over the U.S. and to customers in Italy, Germany, India, Denmark, and Russia, among other countries. 

“About three years ago we imported the first micro lotus, and now that’s the most searched for plant on our website,” Nau says. Micro lotus are compact—just six to eight inches tall—and you can grow one in a six-inch pot on a balcony if you live in an apartment. You can move a micro lotus inside for a few days at a time when it’s blooming, then get it back out into the light, then bring it back in. “We have about 50 cultivars of micro lotus and plan to expand our exhibit to over 100 pots this year,” Nau says.  

One particularly exciting member of the Bergen horticultural collection is the trade’s first variegated-leaf lotus—Nelumbo ‘Gold Splash Hibiscus’. It was found in China in 2016 by a propagator-colleague as a mutation within a group of stock pink lotus, and Bergen was given exclusive marketing rights to the cultivar. According to Nau, the variegation on propagules from the mother plant (the plant is propagated by tuberous division) has remained stable. The ‘Gold Splash Hibiscus’ lotus has a double pink flower, five inches in diameter. The flower’s shape and appearance is reminiscent of that of hibiscus, and the plant reaches 19 to 24 inches high, with leaves that are 10 inches in diameter. 

The “Black Red” lotus is a new introduction for 2021 from China. “We are the first to offer it to the international water gardening community, and it has created much excitement,” says Nau. “In general, Chinese visitors remark about how good our red-flowering lotus look—something about our soil, perhaps, or the fertilizer we’re using, is yielding a deep color.”  

MORE BERGEN AND LOTUS HIGHLIGHTS
– The growing operation and the displays at Bergen are ambitious. In addition to five (soon to be six) greenhouses, Bergen has 65 five-by-five-foot mini-ponds for lotus and three natural growing areas that are 25 by 100 hundred feet each. Bergen sits at about the same latitude as the places in China where lotus grows naturally; blooming begins in late June and early July. The red cultivar ‘Magnificent’ is always the first to bloom for Bergen, and lotus generally bloom to the middle to end of September. 

– After the Lunar New Year (February 12 in 2021), Nau, Liu, and a helper begin harvesting lotus tubers from plants produced in pots, cleaning and sterilizing them, and shipping them out. So, February and March can actually be the busiest time of the year for Bergen, which also imports more than 6,000 tubers annually from China. 

– In 2021, the annual Bergen Water Gardens and Nursery LotusFest will be the weekend of July 31–August 1. It’s Bergen’s celebration of the beauty of lotus, with thousands of lotus flowers on display and, most years, lotus chips and lotus pizza available for tasting.   

– “Lotus Paradise at Bergen Water Gardens & Nursery” refers to the first International Waterlily and Water Garden Certified Nelumbo Collection of Excellence, made up of 80 of the 400-plus varieties at Bergen. 

– Nau served as the task force chairperson for the creation of the Thai International Waterlily Collection at King Rama IX Public Park in Bangkok, Thailand, unveiled during the IWGS symposium in July, 2007. More than 18 renowned hybridizers and growers contributed more than 110 historically significant varieties of hardy and tropical waterlilies to the collection, which was presented as a gift to mark both King Bhumipol Adulyadej’s 80th anniversary and the 20th anniversary of the park. You can read more about this remarkable endeavor at iwgs.org.

– A future avenue for the business may come from the edible nature of most lotus seeds, stems, leaves, flowers, and tubers. Nau explains that lotus—especially the tuber—is a staple food throughout China, Southeast Asia, and India. “Lotus tubers look like sausages linked together, with unique air passages on the inside,” he says. “Once harvested, washed, and peeled, the lotus tuber may be sliced, boiled, or stir-fried. The tuber has a mild flavor with a crisp texture. Lotus are cooked with other vegetables, pickled in vinegar, or candied as a dessert.” He envisions a growing demand for edible lotus, but also has been contacted by New York City–based businesses who want to come to Bergen to do photo shoots for face creams and other lotus-based products. (As Nau explains, it’s cheaper for crews from NYC to come to Churchville, New York, than to fly to China.) 

– There are silky strands in lotus stems that can be used to make textiles. 

– The lotus plant has significant religious and cultural meaning for many of the world’s peoples. 

– Find Bergen Water Gardens and Nursery at bergenwatergardens.com. 

Michelle Sutton is a horticulturist, writer, and editor.

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Eating your flowers and loving it

by cathym on May 12, 2021

Story by Carol Sitarski; photos courtesy Pixabay

The weather is finally warm and with that we are seeing flowers start to bloom with all the pretty colors that we love. But are the blooms all there is to enjoy? Absolutely not! Some flowers are not only beautiful, but tasty as well, with flavors that will delight your palate. If you haven’t tried some or any, please do. You can use them in recipes or as garnishes, but either way I hope to entice you to try some.

But first some warnings: 
– You should never use pesticides or other chemicals on any part of any plant that produces blossoms you plan to eat.
– Don’t harvest flowers growing by the roadside.
– Not every flower is edible, and you may even be allergic to some, just like any food.
– Identify each flower exactly and eat only parts you know to be edible.
– Use flowers sparingly in your recipes to avoid digestive complications that can occur with overconsumption.

There are many kinds of flowers and their parts that are edible, but since I can’t list them all here, I’ll stick to some of my favorites. I hope you’ll give them a chance. I have personally made the most scrumptious jelly from flower blossoms … mmm. You can find a more comprehensive list at whatscookingamerica.net/EdibleFlowers. 

Apple blossom

Apple blossom (Malus spp.)—Apple blossoms have a delicate floral flavor and aroma. They are a nice accompaniment to fruit dishes and can easily be candied to use as a garnish. NB: Eat in moderation as the flowers may contain cyanide precursors. The seeds of the apple and its wild relations are poisonous.

Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)—Both flowers and leaves have a delicate anise or licorice flavor. Some people say the flavor reminds them of root beer. The blossoms make attractive plate garnishes and are often used in Asian-style dishes. Excellent in salads.

Bee balm

Bee balm (Monarda didyma)—Bee balm is also called wild bergamot, wild Oswego tea, horsemint, and monarda. Wild bee balm tastes like oregano and mint, reminiscent of citrus with soft mingling of lemon and orange. The red flowers have a minty flavor. Any place you use oregano, you can use bee balm blossoms. The leaves and flower petals can also be used in both fruit and green salads. The leaves taste like the main ingredient in Earl Gray tea (the rind of a citrus fruit called bergamot orange) and can be used as a substitute. 

Begonia

Begonia – (Tuberous and waxed: Begonia X tuberosa)—The leaves, flowers, and stems are edible. Begonia blossoms have a citrus-sour taste. The petals are used in salads and as a garnish. Stems can also be used in place of rhubarb. The flowers and stems contain oxalic acid and should not be consumed by individuals suffering from gout, kidney stones, or rheumatism.

Calendula

Calendula (Calendula officinalis)—Also called pot marigold, it is a wonderful edible flower. Flavors range from spicy to bitter, tangy to peppery, a sharp taste resembling saffron (it’s known as poor man’s saffron). They have pretty petals in golden-orange hues. Sprinkle them on soups, pasta or rice dishes, herb butters, and salads. Petals—and only the petals are edible—add a yellow tint to soups, spreads, and scrambled eggs. 

Carnation (Dianthus caryophyllus)—Carnations can be steeped in wine or candied to use as cake decorations. To use the surprisingly sweet petals in desserts, cut them away from the bitter white base of the flower. These members of the carnation family have a light, clove-like or nutmeg scent. Petals add color to salads or aspics. Carnation petals are one of the secret ingredients that have been used to make Chartreuse, a French liqueur, since the 17th century.

Dandelion

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinalis)—The flowers of this daisy-family member are best picked young, when they have a sweet, honey-like flavor; mature flowers are bitter. Dandelion buds are tastier than the flowers. It is best to pick these when they are very close to the ground, tightly bunched in the center, and about the size of a small gumball. They are good raw, steamed, or made into wine or delicious jelly. Young leaves taste good steamed or tossed in salads. When serving a rice dish use dandelion petals like confetti over the rice.

Elderberry blossom

Elderberry blossom (Sambucus spp.)—Elderberry blossoms are a creamy color and have a sweet scent and taste. Do not wash them after harvesting, as that removes much of the fragrance and flavor. Instead check them carefully for insects. The fruit is used to make wine, and the flowers, leaves, fruit, bark and roots have all been used in traditional folk medicine for centuries. NB: All parts of the plant other than flowers and cooked berries are mildly toxic! They contain a bitter alkaloid and glycoside that may change into cyanide. The cooked ripe berries of the edible elders are harmless. Eating uncooked berries may cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. The blossoms make wonderful fritters.

Impatiens

Impatiens (Impatiens wallerana)—These flowers have a sweet flavor. They can be used as a garnish in salads or floated in drinks.

Johnny-jump-ups

Johnny-jump-ups (Viola tricolor)—Lovely yellow, white, and purple blooms have a mild wintergreen flavor and can be used in salads, to decorate cakes, or served with soft cheese. They are also a great addition to drinks, soups, desserts or salads.

Lilac (Syringa vulgaris)—The flavor of lilac varies from plant to plant. The blossoms are very fragrant and slightly bitter, with a distinct lemony taste and floral, pungent overtones. They are great in salads and crystallized with egg whites and sugar.

Peony

Peony (Paeonia lactiflora)—In China, the fallen petals are parboiled and sweetened as a tea-time delicacy. Peony water was used for drinking in the middle ages. Add peony petals to your summer salad or try floating in punches and lemonades.

Rose

Rose (Rosa rugosa or R. gallica officinalis)—The flavor of roses depends on type, color, and soil conditions. Some flavors are reminiscent of strawberries and green apples, sweet, with subtle undertones ranging from fruit to mint to spice. All roses are edible, with the flavor being more pronounced in the darker varieties. Miniature varieties can garnish ice cream and desserts, or larger petals can be sprinkled on desserts or salads. Freeze them in ice cubes and float them in punches. Petals can also be used in syrups, jellies, perfumed butters and sweet spreads. NB: Be sure to remove the bitter white portion of the petals. 

Squash blossom

Squash blossom (Curcubita pepo)—Squash and pumpkin blossoms are edible and taste mildly of raw squash. Prepare the blossoms by washing and trimming the stems and remove the stamens. Squash blossoms are usually taken off the male plants, which don’t produce fruit.

Violet (Viola spp.) – Violets have a sweet, perfumed flavor. Related flowers, Johnny jump-ups or violas, and pansies, now come in colorful purples and yellows to apricot and pastel hues. Eat the tender leaves and flowers in salads. Use the flowers to beautifully embellish desserts, in jelly and iced drinks. Freeze them in punches to delight children and adults alike. The flowers make pretty adornments for frosted cakes, sorbets, or any other desserts, and they may be crystallized as well. The heart-shaped leaves are edible, and tasty when cooked like spinach.

• • •

For those of you who don’t use the internet I have added the basic recipe for making jelly, used with permission from theherbalacademy.com/make-it-wildflower-jelly.

Wildflower Jelly

Gather about two cups of edible flowers or herbs. This part is where you get to let your creativity shine – use whatever you want to use, and in whatever combination you choose. A jelly made from rose petals, citrus blossoms, and passionflowers is lovely. Hibiscus, red clover, and bee balm would be delicious, too. The choice is all yours! Bring your flowers and herbs inside and give them a rinse and roughly chop them. You should have at least a cup of roughly chopped flowers and herbs when you are done, and no more than two. 

Prepare your water bath canner and sanitize your jars and lids. Put four cups of water in a pot and bring it to a boil. Remove it from the heat and add your chopped herbs or flowers. Give it all a stir, close the lid, and let your tea steep for at least an hour. 

Strain the liquid into a bowl. I suggest that you use cheesecloth or a coffee filter while straining to ensure that all the tiny bits are removed.

Ingredients 
2 ¾ cups of prepared herbal infusion
¼ cup of lemon juice (about one medium lemon)
3 ½ cups of sugar
1 packet of pectin

Directions
Pour the infusion into a medium-sized cooking pot and turn it up to a medium-high heat. Add the lemon juice and the pectin to the pot. Stir the mixture well. Add the sugar and stir constantly until it returns to a rolling boil. Let it boil for one minute and remove it from the heat. Carefully pour or ladle the hot jelly into the jars. Wipe the rims with a clean cloth and top each one with a sterilized lid. Process your jars as you wish. I prefer to use a hot water canning bath, using the instructions in the pectin box. Let the jars rest for 24 hours before you pick them up or move them around. After that, enjoy your flower jelly! 

Carol Sitarski is a Master Gardener volunteer with Allegany County Cornell Cooperative Extension.

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From the Publisher: May-June 2021

by cathym on May 5, 2021

Dear friends, 

As we were wrapping up this issue, Cathy wandered into my office. “We should make this one the love issue, she said, “because there sure is a lot of talk about love in it …” 

She was joking, sort of, but why not? Natives, pests and diseases, curb appeal … these are all good themes, but we gardeners are a passionate bunch. We love our gardens, we love plants, we love birds, bees, rain, and sunshine—just about everything that goes along with digging in the dirt*. 

Colleen O’Neill Nice is back for the first time in a few years with a story about her love of zinnias. And Carol Sitarski contributes “Eating your flowers and loving it,” which contains perhaps my favorite sentence in this issue (referring to apple blossoms): “Eat in moderation as the flowers may contain cyanide precursors.” But the grandest, most epic love story inside is that of Larry Nau, his wife Lili Liu, and their internationally renown collection of lotus—parts of which can be made into chips and pizza, interestingly. Everyone loves chips and pizza. 

As for me, I’m in love with my rockery. The whole garden, really, but especially that. The wallflowers growing up against it are not just blooming now (late April)—they never stopped blooming at all through the winter, even under a foot of snow now and again. There’s also a tiny Cyclamen coum I planted almost exactly a year ago—in bloom! The pinks are all budded up, the lewisia is ready to go, and there are even squirrel-planted tulips blossoming on the hillside above. If the best fertilizer is the gardeners’ shadow, this year it should do quite well—I can’t keep away.

As always, thank you for reading—and lots of love!

Jane

Jane Milliman, Publisher

*Yes, I know some readers don’t like the word “dirt.” “Dirt is what I empty out of the vacuum cleaner, not what’s in my garden—that’s soil,” they say. I say, before you criticize someone for this vocabulary choice, look up both words in the dictionary. 

End rant!


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