A Goldfinch’s Palate
The art of gardening has produced many a fine writer but few are on a higher branch than Hanna Rion. Ms. Rion’s writing career in the early 1900s bridged a number of changing sensibilities in America about writing, gardening and women. But despite the chasm of nearly a century since Rion’s entry into American letters her prose remains accessible, witty and beautiful. In one of her most quoted lines she observed: “One of the greatest gifts of the garden is the restoration of the five senses.” That this is true was brought home to me earlier this week when I noticed several Goldfinches squabbling over snacking rights in a gathering of flowering radishes.
For those of you unfamiliar with the behavior of Goldfinches you should know that in general they are amiable, social little fellows who seem quite comfortable sharing close quarters on a sunflower. So to find Goldfinches fighting over a natural food source seemed odd. And the oddity was doubled in my mind when I considered that two other nearby plantings of closely related Brassicas were vacant of Goldfinch interest. Something in those heirloom German radishes was hitting the spot on a Goldfinch’s palate. The mystery of the Goldfinch’s discriminatory palate clearly called for the use of all five senses as Hanna Rion predicted.
The attached photo shows three of several flowering Brassica choices offered in my garden to passing Goldfinches. All of these are Brassicas in stages of early maturing pod formation although some have slightly different forms and sizes. From left-to-right you can see the fine pods of the mis-named heirloom rutabaga, Gillfeather Turnip, (Brassica napobrassica) *. In the middle are the Goldfinch-favored Munchner Bier radish (Raphanus sativus). And on the right are the pods and flowers of California wild radish (Brasica juncea).
The sensory differences between these pods are subtle to my crude, non-Finch palate but I have taken the extraordinary step of recruiting two other blind palates with similar results. The Munchner Bier pods are crisp yet yielding in the mouth. In a word they are “delicate”. And their wtaste is less “radish” and the mild heat comes in late like a tardy child. They are quite easily the best of crowd and much improved over my memory of eating the Rat Tailed Radish which is grown exclusively for its pods.
Despite the fact that my palate concurs with that of a Goldfinch I hold on to some uncertainty if this is, in fact, what wins the favor of my feathered gourmands in yellow tuxedos. There could be something more important and subtler at work than I can detect. But this small lesson reminds me again of the rewards of observation and curiosity in nature. There are levels of wisdom and sophistication well beyond our own at every turn. We need all of our senses including a sixth sense of humility to find them.
Bunches of Munchner Bier Radish pods are available to curious chefs and hungry Goldfinches alike but the finches come first.
Vegetables of Interest, 2008
*For an explanation of the ‘Gilfeather Turnip’ please refer to my website Vegetables of Interest for a long-winded story.