Showing posts with label pawpaw. Show all posts
Showing posts with label pawpaw. Show all posts

Saturday, June 01, 2019

A Few Spring Surprises

Watch spring unfold for enough years and it can start to get predictable in a Groundhog Day kind of way. One group of bloomers segues into the next, year after year. There's a theater piece I wrote called Spring Training, that imagines how Spring's trainer, charged with getting Spring in shape for the annual run-through, would react if Spring decided to go rogue and change the order of flowers on a whim. That hasn't happened, far as I know, despite all the changes underfoot and overhead due to our chemical tampering with the atmosphere. Still, this spring has offered a collection of surprises.

A big surprise came a couple mornings ago, when I dared to walk out into the garden and search for strawberries. Disappointment had been a predictable result up to now, as catbirds, slugs, and who knows what else would claim our berry harvests before we could. True, our past care of the garden had not been marked by a consistent diligence and vigilance, and maybe that was the difference this year. We've paid the garden more attention, and in return it provided a yield of incredibly unblemished berries.

Daffodils in late May? That's what you get, it turns out, when you plant them in March, rather than the previous fall. These were planted by volunteers who came to a daffodil planting party at Veblen House.

Also at Veblen House, the pawpaws are leapin'. There's a saying about transplanted shrubs and trees. "The first year they sleep, the second year they creep, and on the third year they leap!" It's been four years since we planted these. Close enough. Periodic attention has had to be paid to protect them until they are beyond the reach of the deer.

That's Friends of Herrontown Woods board member Victoria Floor providing scale.

My friend Steven who has pawpaws in the backyard had to hand pollinate them to get fruit. This wasn't incredibly surprising, though it's always a surprise when something that's supposed to work actually works.

Steven reminded me that years ago I had given him a "live stake" of silky dogwood. It probably looked a lot like this one--a two foot long late-winter cutting that, in this case, was left to sit in a bucket of water until it sprouted leaves on top and roots on the bottom.

He had planted it in his "lower 40", a wet area that receives runoff from the yard and some sun from an opening in the canopy. Since then, it has quietly grown into a shrub more than ten feet high.

A live stake of elderberry performed similarly.

Another surprise came when Architect Kirsten Thoft reminded me recently that I'd given her some plants for her "stormwater planter", which utilizes and filters runoff from the roof before releasing the rest into the yard. This is a good option for downspouts that empty onto pavement. Plants I noticed: Virginia sweetspire, tall meadowrue, and royal fern.

If there's a theme here, it's that plants and nature in general demonstrate an impressive growth force when given a chance, and a little dose of tending through the years. That's a realization that never loses its sense of pleasant surprise.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Sustainable PawPaw Liberation Service

As someone highly empathic towards plants, I woke up today sensing that something was amiss. Somewhere, a native pawpaw was being shaded out by a Norway maple. Now, I like Norway, and I like maples, but a Norway maple tends to sprout unasked along the fencelines of our fair town, then cast its over-the-top stifling shade upon all hapless plantlife that, through no fault of its own, happens to be growing nearby. Many plants suffer in silence. In fact, just about all of them do, if they happen to be suffering, and it's up to those of us bestowed with special powers, caring, and knowledge to act for their welfare. The situation is all the more dire when a pawpaw is not getting enough light to make flowers and bear that delicious tropical-tasting fruit.

As the founder of the Sustainable PawPaw Liberation Service, it's my job and perhaps solemn duty to rescue pawpaws in distress. A deep commitment to botanical justice and increased pawpaw productivity moves me at times like this to finally stop posing in front of my garage with my pawpaw liberation saw,

and put some mettle to the pedal. Useful tip: Riding while holding something in one hand is probably not a good idea, but if your hat looks alot like Lancelot's, or at least you're holding something that looks alot like a lance, you'll find that car drivers suddenly start showing some respect.

I arrived on the scene without a second to lose, although if I'd waited a week it probably wouldn't have made much difference. Just as I suspected, a friend's pawpaw was being heavily shaded by a Norway maple. The pawpaw's endearingly obovate leaves were literally, or at least laterally, crying out for sunshine.

Elsewhere in the yard, its faithful companion pawpaw, long liberated, kissed by sunshine and now thirty feet high, had borne most nobly a thousand blooms this spring just past, yet for lack of a companion to cross--pollinate with, it had not one fruit to show for it. Clearly, action was needed so that this fine upstanding couple might share their pollen and bear most heavily many a pawpaw in years to come.

A few deft strokes of the pawpaw liberation saw were all that was needed to, well, at least get the lowest maple branch out of the way. You can see a little gap in the canopy where the sun can shine through. A higher branch will require even more chivalry, and a good ladder.

Though logistics prevented a fully accomplished mission, the intervention may still bear fruit.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Lonely PawPaw Seeks Cross-Pollination

Round about Mother's Day, my friend Karla received this email: "Lonely apple tree seeks similar for discreet short-term relationship. Afternoons preferred." Just in case there was any misunderstanding, some explanatory text was added: "My tree is blooming, for the first time; is yours? If so, can our trees make a date? Warm regards."

As it happened, her husband Steven was headed that very day to South Brunswick on a related mission, in search of pollen to satisfy the fruiting needs of another kind of fruit tree, the solitary pawpaw planted in their backyard some years ago that was now in full bloom. Though it had sprouted an additional trunk, it was still lonely, genetically speaking, and unlikely to set fruit unless visited by pollen from another pawpaw patch.

Thrust into the role of pollinator, Steven found himself at a distinct disadvantage. He had neither the wings to search the greater Princeton area for other pawpaw trees, nor sufficient olfactory apparatus to detect the subtle carrion-like odor pawpaw flowers use to attract pollinating flies. And since Google Maps does not (yet) provide directions to New Jersey's pawpaw patches, the search for prospective pawpaw mates required considerable research savvy. Even upon arrival at the best prospect he could find, the orchards at Rutgers, he still required the kindness of strangers to find the pawpaws amongst all the other fruit trees in the no-doubt vast plantings at Cook College.

This sort of matchmaking is becoming more common as the local food movement, perhaps abetted by backyards made sunnier by tree-toppling storms in recent years, prompts the planting of solitary fruit trees in cloistered backyards--peaches, apples, cherries, figs, persimmons, pears, and the occasional pawpaw--all with uncertain prospects for leading a healthy, promiscuous life of cross-pollination.

For those who know pawpaws only from the childhood lyric about a "pawpaw patch", they happen to be a native understory tree in the Annonaceae--a family of mostly tropical species. One relative of pawpaw grown by the Incas is touted as perhaps "the greatest fruit on the planet", with a taste combining mango and banana. Pawpaw, adapted to the north, offers a chance to grow tropical tastes in cold climes. Though delicious, its shelflife is short, which has thus far limited the pawpaw's commercial potential.

Thanks to the internet, I now know that the "way down yonder in the pawpaw patch" phrase that I've been carrying around in memory all these years comes from a boyscout song. I did not personally reach the status of boyscout, having earned my bobcat, wolf and bear badges in cubscouts only to lose momentum during a leadership void in that critical transition from cub to boyscout. The transition is called webelos, which stands for "we'll be loyal" scouts, a molting process that not everyone successfully completes.

If I had, I might have learned the complete lyrics for Pawpaw Patch, and known that "way down yonder in the pawpaw patch" answers the musical question "Where oh where oh where is Susie?" It matters where Susie is because she happens to be the "queen of Hawaii", which goes with the pawpaw's tropical family roots. If you ever go to Hawaii, you may encounter some of pawpaw's relatives, like the ylang ylang, soursop, and sugar apple. However, according to the song, you needn't go way down to Hawaii, because Susie will teach you to hulu way down yonder in the nearest pawpaw patch. If not completely distracted by Susie's hulu tutorials, the astute boyscout will note that "way down" and "patch" are descriptively correct, because the pawpaw tends to grow in rich bottomlands, and forms clones from its spreading roots.

There's another lingering pawpaw-related mystery knocking around in my memories. In my parents' Michigan backyard in the pre-internet 70s, a pawpaw sprang up spontaneously one year, grew into a patchlet of several stems, and after a few years began bearing flowers and a few fruit the size of a small mango. Where the pawpaw came from is a mystery, as was its capacity to bear fruit, because there was no known patch nearby, and the seeds looked much too large to navigate a bird's digestive tract. We didn't ask questions, however, because they were delicious. A bit of pollination assist with a cue tip may have helped with yield one year, which the raccoons and squirrels were grateful for.

Steven's recent research, empowered by the internet era, has delved far more deeply into the sexuality of a pawpaw. Way up yonder in this pawpaw post is a picture that Steven sent me of two pawpaw flowers, the green one not yet having acquired that lovely burgundy hue that flies are supposed to mistake for dead meat.

If a pawpaw flower were able to speak to its sexuality, it would say something like "I was female before I was male." Here to the left is a male flower, which is really a female flower a few days later. Looking closely, you can see a subtle difference. There are now yellow (male) anthers surrounding the green dot in the center (female stigma). The logic is that the anthers on any particular flower open up as the stigma is closing down, thereby preventing a flower from pollinating itself.

But that logic suggests that a tree with flowers in different phases could in fact pollinate itself, with pollen from one flower spreading to the next, and make fruit without importing pollen from elsewhere.

Still, the available information suggests that it helps to have cross pollination from one pawpaw patch to another, and that human-assisted pollination is often needed to make up for a lack of interest among the local flies.

Next year, Steven won't have to travel to South Brunswick in search of a "house of reputed pawpaws", because by chance I found a fine potential mate in the backyard of another friend, behind the Jewish center just a quarter mile away. It's a splendid specimen, thirty feet high, sporting perhaps a thousand flowers.

But pawpaw growers shouldn't have to depend on chance discovery. There needs to be an internet dating service for fruit trees. Sometimes it takes a village, or at least a good network.

Update, June 9: Just met a neighbor named Joe who has replaced the lawn in his side yard with four varieties of pawpaw and a lot of mulch. He says that wild pawpaws are common in Maryland, that raccoons and squirrels may be repelled by the bad-tasting skin of the fruit, and that it's easy to emerge from wild pawpaw patch with large buckets of fruit. I did not ask about any encounters with Susie, or if Marylanders are more adept at doing the hulu.

Some interesting links: