The Duchess of Dirt is busy in the kitchen

Sugarplums dancing in Duchess of Dirt’s head

I love Christmas! It is one of a very few bright spots in an otherwise dreary, non-gardening winter...

The countdown to Christmas has begun and there are visions of sugarplums dancing in my head.

I love Christmas! It is one of a very few bright spots in an otherwise dreary, non-gardening winter. All thanks to my mom, and my dad, for fostering so many wonderful memories.

Mom was so good at setting the right mood for this festive season. Decorating the house…making sure all of our various attempts at holiday crafts were on display. Creating a not-to-be-forgotten aroma of festive baking welcoming us home every day during that endless final week of school before holidays.

Except for my little brother, our family shared a special chuckle every year for the hand-drawn facsimile of a skull and crossbones always prominently displayed on the cookie tin containing the Mexican wedding cakes.

Mom was so upset with him that memorable year he dropped the tin on the floor, smashing every cookie within. Those delightful crescent moon-shaped, sugar dipped cookies were time-consuming to make in the volume my mother always set for the Christmas company through our front door.

Perhaps a strange memory to retain but one of the many special memories nonetheless.

There were never any actual sugarplums laid out for Christmas in our home…other than the appearance of the Sugarplum Fairy in the annual ballet production my sister danced in every year.

Sugarplums take even longer to make than Mexican wedding cakes…and likely why they have been left behind in the Christmas traditions of centuries past.

But have they?

It may surprise you to learn sugarplums are not just a vision from a favourite Christmas poem. There are indeed present day sugarplums.

One in particular is a cultivar of a European hybrid plum, Prunus x domestica, called ‘Sugar Plum’. Great for eating straight from the tree, this European plum can also be used in dessert dishes, processed into preserves, added to salads and dried into prunes.

And, because of its high sugar content, it is especially valuable for making brandy and wine…although it is not to be left out of the processing of certain cheeses either.

There is also a delightfully fragrant pink available called Dianthus ‘Sugar Plum’. Bred by the renown dianthus breeder, Whetmans, this one has lovely two-toned, frilly flowers. It only gets to 12 inches (30 cm) in height (reminiscent of the Twelve Days of Christmas perhaps) and about 15 inches (40 cm) wide.

And who knew sugarplum was one of the common names bestowed upon our western serviceberry, Amelanchier alnifolia?

I am more familiar with its other common name of Juneberry. Rich in polyphenol antioxidants, its fruits are just as good for you as  blueberries with additional benefit of iron, manganese, vitamin B2 and dietary fibre.

The fruits look like miniature apples with skins that darken to the hue of blueberries when ripe. They were a much-appreciated local food source in the early days of our settlers.

More recently, there is scientific evidence on the medicinal value contained in the stems, berries and roots of Amelanchier species.

It has long been used by native North American peoples in treating fevers, ear problems, colds, haemorrhaging and a host of other ailments. Now it is also an important ingredient in a drug treatment for HIV.

All very interesting but at this time of year, I will dwell on the sugarplums of old. Especially this year as my siblings and I approach the first anniversary of our father’s passing on Boxing Day, made more poignant with the passing of our mom last August.

Those wonderful memories instilled in us of our family Christmases past will keep our parents forever in our hearts.

John and I…and our new puppy, Sadie…wish everyone a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. May you be blessed with wonderful memories of your own…this year and in many more to come.

Leslie Cox co-owns Growing Concern Cottage Garden in Black Creek. Her website is at www.duchessofdirt.ca and her column appears every second Thursday in the Record.

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