french fries mcdon alds

If you’ve had fries at McDonald’s, you’ve likely eaten a relative of a Luther Burbank creation, a Russet potato he invented in the 1870’s. He was also working on another large scale project—the thornless blackberry.

He wanted to take the rough spots out of nature; kind of the parallel to his spineless cactus or his stonelesss plum.

Burbank traded seeds with fellow collectors all around the world. In a package from India, he found seeds for a huge blackberry with an even larger flavor. He named it the Himalayan Giant and it grew like nobody’s business–but only in temperate areas, like the Pacific Coast, and the area around Puget Sound was ideal. Our little farmhouse in Kirkland on the shores of Lake Washington was perfect for them.

Burbank’s business was thriving and he was hanging out with people like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. He had suddenly become an international celebrity. He was so successful at breeding plants that he became interested in applying the same principles–to people.

He started selling a new book that he’d written in his catalogs, “The Training of the Human Plant”. He considered the U.S. the perfect place to practice eugenics, because at the turn of the century there were immigrants coming from all over the world. Though he had no training in eugenics, he thought he could apply the same principles as in his plant breeding.

Burbanks’s theory of genetics was that an organism’s surroundings left an imprint that was passed on to future generations. For that reason he wrote that children should spend most of their time outdoors, communing with Nature. Perhaps that’s why a Mercer Island boarding school for troubled boys was named after him in 1931. Seattle boys running amok, were sent to the Luther Burbank School on the shores of Lake Washington where they learned to farm.

Today only the dormitory remains in what is now Luther Burbank Park. And the only thing running amok are the Himalayan blackberries that escaped those turn of the century berry farms and gardens.

Sasha Shaw, noxious weed expert with King County, “I mean there is not a part of western Washington that is not touched by this plant.” The Himalayan blackberry erodes soil and crowds out native plants and animals. “It can grow in dry soils, wet soils, and it grows into the forest. It grows in full sun. There’s not a place it can’t succeed.

Birds and other animals spread the seeds far and wide. Those seeds can live in the ground for years waiting to germinate. And once the plant is growing, when the tip of a vine touches the ground–it can create a new plant.

Luther Burbank never got around to breeding humans, but it appears that he may have introduced a master race—of blackberries.

Thanks to Ann Dornfeld for the reminder



The large juicy raspberries were a bonus, unlike the twisted blackberry vines covering part of the overgrown property. We found that following one long blackberry vine to the source leads to another heading a different direction. Where did our Himalayan blackberries originate?

Life was changing dramatically in America at the end of the 19th century. People were moving from rural areas to towns and cities–including Seattle. Industrialization was creating a new midddle class.

Down the coast in Santa Rosa, California, an eccentric guy named Luther Burbank was hard at work on his experimental farm. Burbank didn’t have any formal training, but he was working to breed strange and wonderful new kinds of plants.

Burbank realizes that the new middle class is going to want to have fresh fruits and vegetables, not canned peas and beans. But in order to do that the new varieties are going to have to be able to be shipped on the nation’s new transcontinental railroad.

Burbank’s creations could be weird, like a spineless cactus. His potato-tonato hybrid never took off, but others were smash hits, like the freestone peach and elep[hant garlic.



English Garden(00012)A small corner of the garden

I hate to say that Sophia Loren taught me how to be old, but it’s the truth. Sophia has that certain something that makes you wonder how she does it. Is it her impossibly thick flowing locks, or her perfect posture? She is no spring chicken, yet she still emanates sexuality.

Years ago I read an interview with her in which she told how she prepares for the part of an older person. I realized I knew people who fit the unpleasant image of old age, including the thick ankles, the sad face with turned down mouth, the shoulders tight and raised, cramping the chest so that a deep breath is impossible. This of course without saying a word.

In a matter of seconds she became an old woman slumping gratefully into a chair with a loud sigh of relief. You could feel the aching back, the tired feet and the resignation.

We can’t help growing older, in fact we should be grateful to have lived a full life, but we don’t need to advertise the fact by frowning, slumping, groaning and otherwise making ourselves smaller. No wonder the young sometimes don’t see the old. Why should they? Did we? I have a young African-American man who clerks at our local grocery store, who never fails to stop what he is doing and give me a hug & say “Hi Ma! How’re you doing today?” I smile and it helps make my day.

According to a friend of mine, he is handing out “peanuts”, or a cheerful thought. I heard another man say goodbye to someone the other day by saying “Have a nice day, it’s the only one you got”. I was reminded of that all the way through the store. It really WAS the only one I had.

I try to think of Sophia every time I catch myself humping over the computer or otherwise giving in to the ravages of time.

As many of my more long time readers may remember, I still meet my high school girl friends once a month at a favorite restaurant in our hometown. We celebrated two birthday this week of newly arrived 89 year old beauties. As one friend, a former San Francisco ballerina, put it, we are “high performing seniors”. She regularly receives e-mails from a male classmate who was a well known ball player. Nothing to get excited about, but it kind of assures all of us that we can still attract the opposite sex. I took a younger friend from our town to join the group, and I think she was pleased to find that we are not awash in the past, but are interested in what is going on right now.

So Sophia, now that I have figured out the slumping and sighing, I would really appreciate knowing how you, at the age of 81, have kept those thick flowing locks?


Cat Scan“CAT SCAN”

Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are? Every time we read something that says animals can’t do something, another animal proves us wrong.

In the past scientists said that only humans could learn to use tools, but I have seen crows and ravens in Alaska working together to gain access to a cart full of shrimp which was covered with a tarp. When a banana and a stick were dropped outside a chimpanzees cage all he had to do was pick up the stick and drag the banana into the cage. Yet scientists said he couldn’t do it.

We keep hearing that animals don’t grieve, cannot look into the future, or being concerned for the well being of others, but a dog will grieve when his master dies, and cats sometimes lie down next to a person who is on the brink of passing away in hospitals.

Dogs absolutely can tell time and recognize body language. Charlie proves that every day. I have known humans who couldn’t do that! I think the best claims about human exceptionalism to be funny ones, such as Mark Twain’s ‘Man is the only animal that blushes-or needs to.’

It’s hard to prove a negative claim because the evidence keeps changing. and tests vary between species. Often poor performance in the animals had more to do with how they were tested than with their mental powers.

In one experiment researchers conducted a mirror test—to see if an animal recognizes its own reflection. They placed a mirror on the floor outside an elephant cage. They put a body mark on the elephant to see if it would touch it. It failed to touch it, so the verdict was that the animal lacked self awareness.

But Joshua Plotnik modified the test by placing an eight foot mirror inside the enclosure with the elephants. They could feel it, smell it, and walk behind it. The researchers were worried about the elephants curiosity, because the mirror was mounted on a wooden wall not built to hold off a four ton elephant smelling it.

One Asian elephant, named “Happy”, recognized her reflection. Marked with a white cross on her forehead above her left eye, she repeatedly rubbed the mark while standing in front of the mirror. She connected her reflection with her own body. Years later, Josh Plotkin has tested many more animals at Think Animals International, in Thailand, and his conclusion holds; some Asian elephants recognize themselves in the mirror. The challenge is to find tests that fit an animal’s temperament, interests, anatomy, and sensory capacities.

We know that some primates can paint pictures, a local gorilla living in Palo Alto once gave me a nice show at the gallery of his paintings, and and even supplied a movie showing how he accomplished them.

So don’t shortchange the animals, they were probably here first.



It is important as senior citizens to keep abreast of the newest slang expressions invented by the young in the hope of further polarizing themselves. Lately I have seen a couple of signatures telling me to “Keep on Ballin'”, and a U-Tube titled “Ballin’ on a Budget”.

The thing the young haven’t figured out yet is that there is nothing new under the sun, and most of the terms they “invent” are reruns from the past. Not that there is anything wrong with that. A lot of old clever sayings were pretty self-explanatory. For instance, “ballin’ or balling” usually means “go for it” or something similar. How do I know this?

When I was a girl, my mother and her sister sang a little song called “Ballin’ the Jack” which was written in 1913 by Jim Burris with music by Chris Smith. It introduced a popular dance by the same name. Through the years it was used in many movies and was the expression was used by railroad workers to mean “going at full speed”. It was sometimes used regarding operating a jackhamer.

I did the dance for a friend of mine and she said “Oh, that’s the Chicken Dance”. The “Chicken Dance” is really cute, but it isn’t the same one. Here’s the real song and the lyrics describe the dance:

First you put your two knees close up tight,
Then you sway ’em to the left. then you sway “em to the right,
Step around the floor kind of nice and light,
Then you twis’ around and twis’ around with all your might,
your lovin’ arms straight out in space
Then do the Eagle Rock with style and l
Swing your foot way round then bring it back
Now that’s what I call “Ballin’ the Jack”.

Now I’d like to know who the heck the Jack is.