If this is the first issue of “A Place Is a Gift” you’re encountering, here’s the introduction, plus a bit more about me and why I’m writing this newsletter.
I don't think I understood how essential flowers were to human happiness until I moved to Seattle.
Northern California, where I lived for 25 years, is profligate with light. Even in the Bay Area's fog belt, white-gold sunlight leaks through more days than not. In my 30s, when I moved to a city where the cloud cover was oppressively low and constant, and the winter days were so short, the appearance of daffodils and cherry blossoms in March had a discernible impact on my health. It seemed as if my eyes craved the flashes of bright color, hunted for them involuntarily. And as the Northwest's long, slow spring gained momentum, so did the rise in my mood. After I returned to San Francisco, I bought flowers almost every week to display on my kitchen table.
Maybe I had discovered some new truth about how beauty fed my soul. Or maybe I had just hit middle age.
Oregon winters are much easier to survive than Washington's, and the spring flowers show up earlier, denser, more vivid. In our third year here, I can track the season by its floral calendar, beginning with tiny purple and yellow crocuses and culminating in rhododendrons and azaleas, all of which have the power to counteract the gloom.
This year, now that I'm determined to risk death by tasting everything in my yard, eating flowers seemed like the right way to celebrate spring. I wasted a couple of weeks drying the petals off the mammoth hot-pink flowers on our camellia japonica tree to see if their faint scent would intensify when dehydrated (answer: no). A few people told me that forsythia blossoms were edible, and so I nibbled on a couple of yellow buds, and I can tell you with some authority that they may not kill you, but they won't make your life better. I know better than to eat crocus petals, and by "know better" I mean I googled the topic for a half-hour before I bit in.
And when the flowering plum and cherry trees erupted in bloom, I began roaming the neighborhood with a half-pint container, gathering white and pink buds to pickle.
This week is peak cherry-blossom season in Portland. A pale pink cloud hovers over the western banks of the Willamette River as it flows through the city center. Fallen petals have just begun to speckle the sidewalks, and in another week they will pile up in Barbie-car-pink drifts.
From Japan to the Pacific Northwest
Japanese nurseries have been sending seeds and cuttings across the Pacific Ocean since the early 1900s, and in the post-World War II years ornamental cherries, or sakura, and ornamental plums took hold in cities across the Pacific Northwest. In Vancouver, B.C., they make up more than a third of all street trees. Portland's Albina neighborhood, the heart of the city's Black community, is awash in aging Kwanzan cherry trees, thanks to a community effort that began in 1961.
Japanese tanka poets like the 11th century’s Chikuzen Wet Nurse have rued the fragility of life while contemplating the beauty of cherry blossoms, and perhaps it is fitting that the most spectacular grove in Portland also honors Americans banished to internment camps in the 1940s and the destruction of the city's Japanese American community. The snowfall of dead petals begins almost as soon as the blossoms unfurl. The gap between delight and sorrow is so fine that it erases itself.
In my blossom-stealing excursions, I gathered a quarter-cup of just-open buds from one tree, ducked around the corner, and foraged another handful. I still can't tell ornamental plums apart from cherries, so I gathered the blossoms that emitted the most vivid almond-soap fragrance, brought them home, and layered them with salt. Following Diversivore’s recipe for pickled sakura, I added some rice vinegar after three days and left the jar in the fridge until the liquid turned pink. Then I gingerly laid the blossoms out on a dehydrator tray, setting the machine to its lowest temperature for 4 hours. As the fan whirred it filled the dining room with the smell of warm vinegar.
I crushed a few of the pickled flowers into the center of sakura onigiri, sprinkling the tops of the rice balls with toasted sesame seeds and a few whole blossoms. Dried, the flowers seemed to have lost their fragrance, but it returned in the back of my palate, followed by a quick, sharp bitterness—not surprisingly, I probably foraged a few of the wrong kind.
I saved the most intact dried flowers to press into Chopstick Chronicles' sakura sablé cookies, which I flavored with Samin Nosrat's apricot-kernel extract to amplify the almond-like scent. And for a bite—just the central bite from the cookie—it worked, and I could smell the fertile core of the blossom, the seductive call it sends out into the world, which we dull-nosed humans ignore in favor of its looks.
This weekend we are heading out to see more cherry blossoms, and if the sakura selfie takers aren't too thick on the ground, I may gather a few more flowers to bring home. It is hard not to want to preserve cherry blossoms, and yet the impulse feels perverse, like starting botox treatments in your 20s. The evanescent beauty of ornamental cherry trees is what brought them to Oregon. Admiring it is all they ask us to do.