Cajun French for “Let the good times roll”, Mardi Gras 2020 ended not too long ago, in late February, and we were there! The origins of Mardi Gras can be traced to medieval Europe eventually making its way to the French House of the Bourbons. Bourbon Street named, in fact, after a royal family in France, not after the amber-colored whiskey. In 1699, French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville arrived some 60 miles from New Orleans and named it “Pointe du Mardi Gras” as it was the eve of the convivial holiday. Noisy and raucous perhaps, New Orleans incites and embodies all that a party town offers and its rich history is rooted in, what else, plants.
Perhaps one of the most visited landmarks in ‘New Or-lins’ is the famous Café du Monde. Established in 1862 in the New Orleans French Market, beignets (French-style square doughnuts covered with powdered sugar) and coffee are all the rage here. Dark roasted coffee, with chicory, was developed by the French during their civil war. Chicory is the root of the endive plant which is a type of lettuce. Roasted and ground, chicory is added to coffee to help “soften” coffee’s sometimes bitter edge. Acadians from Nova Scotia brought this unique taste with them as well as many other French customs. Should you visit, despite how you take your coffee, it all tastes better with a beignet.
Whenever I think of the South, their most iconic tree always comes to mind. Live oak, Quercus virginiana, is also known as the Southern live oak tree. A symbol of strength, the live oak is also the state tree of Georgia. Capable of living for hundreds of years, live oak gets its name because they remain green and “alive” throughout the winter when other trees are dormant. A tough, durable tree, Quercus virginiana can survive just about anywhere. Forests, hot parking lots, even by the ocean; as salt spray doesn’t bother this tree. Supporting many types of epiphytic plants, including Spanish moss, this seems to only add to their character. There are several notable live oaks on record; “The Seven Sisters Oak” near Louisburg, Louisiana, the “Cellon Oak” in Alachua, Florida and the “Angel Oak” near Johns Island, South Carolina. These trees are over 1,000 years old and the “Cellon Oak” can reportedly be seen from space. My own experience, in New Orleans, had me gawking at the live oaks in Congo Square, an open space within Louis Armstrong Park “where slaves and free blacks gathered throughout the 19th century for meetings, open markets, and the African dance and drumming celebrations that played a substantial role in the development of jazz” (neworleans.com). Additionally, local voodoo practitioners still consider this space a spiritual base. Back to my live oaks, the real estate given to these majestic creatures showcases their limbs plunging towards the ground before shooting towards the sky. Despite all that live oak offer us, alas, I will continue to get on a plane to enjoy their beauty. Sadly, they are only “hardy” from zones 7-10, a bit warmer than New Jersey’s climate.
During our time visiting the “Crescent City”, we took a tour of the French Quarter and Saint Louis Cemetery Number One. Our tour guide was a wealth of information and she told us about the true or common indigo plant, Indigofera tinctoria. A species of plant from the bean family, this was one of the original sources of blue indigo dye. Widely grown for improving soils, the dye is obtained from processing/fermenting the plants leaves. Our guide explained that enslaved workers who handled certain species of indigo plant parts, over several years, showed symptoms of diarrhea, vomiting and even death. Fortunately, over the years, synthetic dyes came about and sugar production quickly became the dominant crop.
‘New Or-lins’ has so much to offer. History, culture, architecture and gastronomical treats, all there to nourish your mind, body and soul. Turtle soup, jambalaya, red beans and rice, gumbo, crawfish etouffee, muffaletta’s, beignets, Po-Boys, King Cake, pralines and charbroiled oysters with jumbo lump crabmeat… the list could go on forever. And should you wish to partake in a libation or (2), consider a unique purple gin from the iconic Fairmont Empress Hotel in Victoria-British Columbia, Canada. Attending a house party, friends introduced us to Empress 1908 gin. Made from 8 botanicals: juniper, grapefruit peel, coriander seed, rose petals, cinnamon bark, ginger root, butterfly pea blossom and Fairmont Empress Blended Tea, this proves yet again, how wonderful the plant kingdom truly is. A refreshing potable whose hue is spot on for Mardi Gras. The next time someone yells “Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler”, make sure to shout back “Ouai, tu as raison” which means “Yeah, you’re right!”