Thursday, December 15, 2016

Making of the Holiday Cards: Wet-Mounting

This is a quick behind-the-scene look at "Wet-Mounting". The finishing step in Chinese style watercolor.

When paper is soaked then dried, it inevitably buckles and becomes wavy. Usually for western style watercolor, a heavy-weight paper is used and/or the paper is stretched before the painting process commences to minimize buckling. In Chinese style watercolor, stretching is done after the painting is completed. This saves time because I only stretch the painting I wish to display. Two years ago, I did many different versions of "Journey behind the falls" but I only stretched two.

This year, I did a painting of Letchworth State Park. For Chinese style watercolor, very light-weight absorbent paper is used, traditionally made from tree bark and rice straws. After the painting is done (this is version #3), it's placed good-side down on a smooth surface.

I have my tools handy: backing paper (has to be larger than the painting), water-soluble paste and a wide goat-hair brush, a padded putty knife (traditionally a stubby palm broom is used, but I don't have that).

The whole painting is spritzed with water to help the paper relax. After smoothing out the all the bubbles, it's brushed with the paste. Backing paper is then placed on top, and pushed down with the padded putty knife, assuring good adhesion.

Paste is then applied to the edges of the backing paper. The whole thing is carefully peeled off and stretched good-side up on a mounting board to dry. Once it's dried, it can be remove from the mounting board with an utility knife.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Balloon Flower 桔梗 Jie Geng

Root of the reliable balloon flowers (桔梗 Jie Geng) is used in Chinese medicine. It was one of the first Chinese medicinal plants that I've acquired. I bought one from The Home Depot three years back and finally got around to painting it this year. Here is a comparison of the reference photo and the painting.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Saffron: High-Value Low-Hassle

Saffron is usually known as the most expensive spice by weight, or a major ingredient in paella. But it is also used in Chinese herbal medicine. It's called Xi Hong Hua 西紅花(western red flower) or Zang Hong Hua 藏紅花 (Tibetan red flower), used when stronger effects are needed in place of the common safflower (紅花 Hong Hua).

I put in twenty bulbs last year (they were available at Lowes; i didn't even need to source them online) and would highly recommend growing saffron to anyone. Here are my reasons.

They are very cheerful. It's surprising to see flowers blooming in November. Lots of people commented on them. So it also works as a conversation starter.

They are very easy to grow. If you have them in the ground by September, they will flower on first year. They multiply readily. I harvest more than double amount of saffron this year.

Not to mention that they are a high-value crop. You would be expecting to pay $15-20 at the supermarket for a tiny envelope of it. The fresh saffron has a much stronger fragrance. I can't stop sniffing the saffron while they sat on my desk.

Grow Your Own Chrysanthemum Tea!

Chrysanthemum (菊花 Ju Hua) is a common Chinese medicinal herb, usually steeped into a beverage and slightly sweetened. Unlike most herbs, chrysanthemum actually TASTES GOOD. I served chilled honeyed chrysanthemum tea at our grand opening party couple years back. Some people actually asked for the recipe. You can buy tightly-packed dry chrysanthemum at the Chinese supermarket but it is quite easy to grow your own. And here's how.

In late August, when the garden centers start to put the chrysanthemum out, buy a couple. They are cheap. People use them like disposable flowers but if you plant them, they will come back year after year. Plant them as soon as possible in full sun. The more time they have be become established before winter, the better chance they have. Ideally, they should be in the ground by the first week of September.

Do nothing for a while. Wait for them to die back with when the hard frosts and DON'T cut them back. Around Thanksgiving, cover them with 2-3" of mulch.

Pull back the mulch in March and check for new growth. They might be a bit tender at this time and can die back with spring frost. But by April they should be back. Now you can cut last year's dead branches, spread the mulch and fertilize.

Some people pinch their mums, but I don't and there are still plenty of flowers. When flowers are in full bloom, it's harvest time. They are so prolific. You can pick for half an hour and not put a dent in the display.

Clean the flowers by soaking them in water with a couple drops for vinegar, drain and rinse. Then dry them in the dehydrator or in a oven at the lowest setting.

Store in jar. Traditionally, it's the white and yellow chrysanthemum that are used in tea. I've tried red and purple too. They do taste different and the infusion is slightly darker.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Fifty American Ginseng Seeds

In the spring I told my parents that I was planting some onions in my garden. My dad said, "Onions are so cheap to buy. Why don't you grow some high-value specialty crop instead?"

So this autumn, I'm trying my hand at growing American Ginseng. The seeds are from Johnny's Selected Seeds and had been stratified and ready to go. I promptly put them in the ground. We'll see if they come up next year.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Poppy Seed Casing 罌粟殼 Ying Su Ke

I grew some Hungarian Blue Breadseed poppies by our front door. Poppies flowered in early summer. The droopy flower buds gradually straightened up and bloomed. The flowers lasted only a couple days then dropped all petals, leaving the seed pods. The seed pods nodded in the wind for a while and gradually dried up. Seed pods were picked and the seeds were harvested. The empty seed casings are used in Chinese herbal medicine for chronic cough, diarrhea and pain.

In this watercolor painting, I combined the 3 stages of the flower development in the composition. I chose to paint the poppy at the height of its prettiness and not when it's browned and shriveld, ready to be used for medicine. I suppose my choice is sentimental and not scientific. But I like pretty. So there you have it.

Also debuting the negative-carved stone chop with the Peaceful Water motto 心如止水 (Heart liken to still water). The meaning behind Peaceful Water.

Monday, May 23, 2016

New medicinal herbs in our garden

I've planted the seedlings I started this spring. Hyacinths beans (bai bien dou), and Job's Tears (yi yi ren) are annuals. I planted them in containers, with some Pinks (qu mai) thrown in as fillers.

Tree Peony (mu dan) was moved to the corner, with newly planted Astragalus (huang qi), Licorice (gan cao), and Codonopsis (dang shen). All three new herbs are perennials and are harvested for their roots 3-5 years after planting.

Both Agastache rugosa (huo xiang) and Agastache foeniculum are planted in the crescent-shaped bed beside Coburn Chiropratic entrance. With some western herbs, St. John's Wort and Yarrow, to keep them company.

Fritillaria 貝母

I put down some Bei Mu 貝母 fritillaria last fall. I couldn't find the commonly used medicinal varieties: 川貝母 Fritillaria cirrohosa or 浙貝母 Fritillaria thunbergii. I just put down the common garden center variety Fritillaria meleagris, sometimes called Checkered Lily. They've emerged just a little bit after the daffodils. I'm continuing my efforts on realistic botanical drawings.

Preparatory sketch then copy to a a watercolor pad.

After coloring and calligraphy.

Friday, April 29, 2016

New Aquisition

百合 Bai He or lily bulbs, commonly used varieties are Lilium brownii, Lilium pumilium or Lilium lancifolium. Lilium lancifolium is Tiger Lily. When I saw them at Lowes, I grabbed myself a bag. When I was in Taiwan, I had eaten fresh lily bulb stir-fried with beef. It was very good. Taste was like a cross between potato and water chestnut.

赤芍 Chi Shao (red peony) and 白芍 Bai Shao (white peony). 芍藥 Shao Yao is herbaceous peony. Since we've already have two 牡丹 Mu Dan (tree peony), it's time to plant more herbaceous peonies. I bought "Shirley Temple" for white and "Karl Rosenfeild" for red.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Seedlings Updates

In February I set up some lights in my basement and bought some heat mats. I started some herbs along side vegetables and flowers. I tried to find varieties specifically used for traditional Chinese medicine. However some of seeds I started are just relatives to the the medicinal varieties.

For example, after finding out 瞿麥 Qu Mai is a Pinks, more specifically Dianthus serperbus or Dianthus chinesis, I went into Lowes looking for Pinks seeds. Maiden Pinks (Dianthus deltoides), was all I can find. So that what I grew.

I also started 藿香 Huo Xiang. The medicinal varieties used are usually Pogostemon cablin (Patchouli) or Agastache rugosa, available here as Korean Hyssop. I bought Agastache foeniculum (Anise Hyssop) along with Agastache rugosa, so I'm starting both.

Some seeds really took off. 薏苡仁 Yi Yi Ren or Job's Tear has a 100% super fast germination and is currently growing bigger than the space I have.

Some seeds did not germinate well. I put 2-3 seeds per cell and only 1 seed germinated for 甘草 Gan Cao (Licorice).

黃耆 Huang Qi (Astragulus or Chinese Milk Vetch) has pretty good germinate rate is growing steadily.

黨參 Dang Shen (Codonopsis or Poor Man's Ginseng) germinated so slowly, I nearly gave up on it.

白扁豆 Bai Bian Dou Hyancinth Beans are showing a lot potential. The germination was fast and 100%. It grew so fast I already had to up-pot it. Instruction on the package said to start indoor, but conventional garden wisdom says beans hates to be transplanted and should be direct-sown. We'll see how these turn out.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Adventure in Chinese Medicinal Herb Gardening

Last year I did a botanical watercolor based on some reference photos I took of the goji berry plant I have at home. I enjoyed doing this style of painting more than I expected.

In the future I wish to paint more Chinese medicinal herbs. To do so, I want to grow more herbs and observe them.

Earlier in the year when I was purchasing seeds for my vegetable & flower garden, I notice that the seed companies also carry a lot of herbs seeds used in traditional Chinese medicine. Some were even sold as flowers seeds. I decided to started some Chinese medicinal herbs from seeds this growing season.

Being a relatively new gardener, some instructions came with the packets are rather intimidating, such as "stratify in sphagnum moss for 3-4 months" or "grow in greenhouse for one year". Herbs that are harvested for their roots need at least 3-5 years before first harvest. Such as Dang Shen (Cordonopsis), Gan Cao (Licorice), Xi Yang Shen (Ginseng). That's a long way to go. I will keep posting updates on the progress of the plants. Wish me luck.