On both of our trips to Poland, we spent some time in the beautiful primeval forest of Bialowieza in Eastern Poland. The area is only an hour or so from our relatives, so we opted to stay at the forest and took a tour in a horse-drawn wagon as well as wonderful walks on our own. One afternoon we rented bikes and rode through the little town of mostly wooden homes. Every home had a garden in place of the customary lawn. The flowers were beautiful and it was hard to decide what to photograph. We rode up and down the winding roads, stopping often to admire the gardens and wondering what causes such a beautiful tradition to develope. We ended up at a small cafe where we drank sodas at a quaint table right under the warm afternoon sun. We could cot imagine returning to Poland without another visit to this wonderful spot.
Bialowieza is famous for the 300 rare Auroch (European bison or bizon, called in Polish zubr) that roam the forest. These animals, as well as other species, are protected. Originally, the forest was entirely in Poland, but after territorial changes following the second World War, it is now partly in Russia. The forest exists now as it as centuries ago. There are pines, oaks, maples and ash going as far as the eye can see. When trees fall they are not removed, but allowed to follow nature's course. This, along with abundant wildlife, creates a wilderness feeling.
One interesting plant found in this area is Buffalo Grass (Trawa zubrowka). The very fragrant grass is used to flavor the famous vodka of the same name. This vodka has a few blades of the grass in the bottle, which gives the drink a sweet, vanilla scent. Zubrowka, or Sweet Vernal Grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum) has always been loved by grazing animals. It is said that animals will leave any other food to graze on it. A northern plant, Buffalo Grass is little known to most Americans. It has very dense, fibrous roots and likes a moist place to grow. Native to Poland and other places in Eastern Europe, it can also be found in sections of the US where the climate is similar. It looks like common grass, but is very unique, especially when dried. Disapointed that Zubrowka Vodka was not available in the US, Ted and I decided to make our own by sticking a few pieces of the grass in a bottle of plain vodka. After about six weeks, the vodka became slightly hone-colored and the wonderful fragrance that we first noticed in Poland.
Those who do not like vodka might want to dry this extremely fragrant grass for potpourri, to place between the sofa or chair cushions, or under a mattress. It is said that in olden times it was used to stuff into pillows and thus insure sweet dreams! There are many other uses for this grass including flavoring sweets, tobaccos and even perfumes.
I am excited about planting some of the grass along the stream that runs behind our nursery. Since it supposedly spreads wildly, I will avoid planting it in the herb garden. If the northern plants can survive here, I can envision drying lots of it to be used for all types of projects, including one to create Christmas presents into which Zubrowka has been added.
Somes Poles make a drink called Krupnik by adding 1 1/2 cups of honey, pieces of Buffalo Grass, 8 sticks of cinnamon, 3 cloves, 3 pieces of lemon peel, a few whole allspice and a crushed nutmeg. Simmer all this for 5 minutes or so and add to a bottle of vodka. I have never made this, but I had a chance to taste it with our relatives in Poland. It is not my favorite, but was treated like it was very special.
Eyewitness Travel Guide to Poland (Eyewitness Travel Guides) by Teresa Czerniewics-Umer, Malgorzata Omilanowska, Jerzy S. Majewski, DK Travel Writers