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Finding the Uncommon Fruits Among the Natives

The road was a two-car squeezer of yellow clay captured between ditch banks three-feet high. Yellow clay produces a prodigious amount of dust, and every summer of our childhood my brother and I, feet bared and toughened, kicked our share of it on the lookout for wild plums. My mother called them Bullaces – a name left over from our English roots and the small black plums originating there – as she picked her own supply for jam making. Still another name for the small red and yellow fruits of Prunus angustifolia is Chickasaw plum. But wild plum or Bullace, the names still evoke in me those late, sultry afternoons and the burst of sweetly tart juice running over my tongue. By the time the lightning bugs came out, we’d be grubby and sticky, fighting off the yellow jackets, our stomachs distended with the sweet ambrosia offered along a country road.

Blooming on old wood, the small, white, fragrant blossoms of the native Chickasaw appear before the leaf, looking as if tiny white butterflies were celebrating spring. Hardy in zones 5 to 9, it adapts well to a wide range of soil types, requiring little maintenance once established. Not picky, it can grow in full sun or part shade.

Grown as a small tree (to twenty feet) with its slender, spreading branches and glossy mahogany bark, it makes a lovely addition to a wildlife or fruit garden. But I like it best growing naturally in a thicket or in a mixed native hedge where the flowers blanket the trees in spring and the small red fruits look like baubles for Solstice in late summer.

     Prunus angustifolia provides nesting sites for songbirds and game birds – mockingbirds, bobwhites, brown thrashers. Prairie chickens and domestic fowl find sanctuary inside its thickets.  And small children on long ago afternoons of plum picking might just be able to share the bounty with a curious and hungry deer.

For me it was the Chickasaw plum, for my daughter it was the persimmons off my mother’s tree.

My mother’s persimmon, the native Diospyros virginiana, grew at the corner of their house. Becoming pudding-like when ripe, the fruit would drop from the tree onto the driveway, providing a feast for a little girl and the squirrels chattering above. Once common in valleys and on upland plateaus across the Eastern and Central U.S. south of the Great Lakes, it’s less known now.

When we first moved to our farm in the foothills of the Appalachians, we found a persimmon tree growing alongside the footbridge spanning the creek behind the house. That first year, we watched its fruit turn from green to yellow to amber, anticipating the honey sweet flesh of this “Fruit of the Gods”. One morning we looked out to find the tree stripped. Not one persimmon left hanging. From up at the barn, we heard them – the flock of turkeys that roost in the Beech woods. They sounded sated, full of ripe persimmons.

Although not as high in nutrients as our native Diospyros, many of the Japanese varieties of Diospyros kaki are small enough to be tucked into a border or anchor a corner of the house. At only 10 feet ‘Ichi Ki Kei Jiro’ is self fertile – unlike the native that requires a male and a female – and the fruit can be eaten while still firm. And maybe you’ll stand a better chance against marauding turkeys, or squirrels, or deer or a little tow-headed girl.

Do children still sing “Pickin up Pawpaws. Put ‘em in your pocket”? At six, I didn’t have a clue why I’d want to be picking up something called a pawpaw; so when my class stopped weaving in and out between our desks, I asked my teacher. She just looked at me. But books are marvelous things. I found out it’s the largest edible fruit native to the United States. Years later, I saw my first pawpaw tree, Asimina triloba, growing beneath a canopy of oak and beech. Looking almost tropical – although it’s hardy to zone 5 – it’s a small tree with large drooping leaves and rich purple flowers.  From a collector in Tifton, Georgia comes a variety called ‘Mango’, its yellow flesh tasting like…yeah, mangoes.

For this native you’ll need your best soil – fertile, moist but well-drained. And you’ll need at least two for pollination in order to reap the benefits of the luscious, three to five-inch fruits, tasting of banana laced with a hint of mango. High in calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, amino acids and a number of vitamins, the nutritious fruit can be shared in the early fall with deer, raccoons, opossums and most song birds. Although the native can reach a height of thirty-five feet, the hybrids, Shenandoah and Allegheny, top out at fifteen.

Growing naturally in creek bottoms and along riverbanks beneath stands of hardwoods, the native mayhaws, Crataegus opaca and Crataegus aestivalis – too long in the shadows – deserves its day in the sunny garden. A member of the hawthorn family, it is to me, the most beautiful of that distinctive tribe.  In spring the tree bursts into bloom, becoming a blizzard of white blossoms, the anthers tipped in wine. The bees gather in a frenzy of pollination. In early summer the clusters of small, red berries look like garlands on an early Christmas tree, a treat for wildlife. High in Vitamin C, potassium, calcium and beta-carotene, it makes the finest jelly in the country. Just ask the folks of Colquitt, Georgia – Mayhaw Capital of the World.

Check out the website http://www.mayhaw.org for a thoroughly enjoyable read on the particulars of the mayhaw.

As gardeners we know the benefits of planting native fruits, nuts and berries – nurtures wildlife, the environment, our health – and apples and blueberries have long been part of our landscape. But get a long time gardener or grower talking about the fruit and nuts he grew up eating. You won’t hear a list of benefits. You’ll hear stories. Weaving itself through our memories, our histories, the natural world binds us to our human selves and to each other – if we participate. And what better way to do that than to plant a little orchard of uncommon natives in the garden.

But what about those wild plums? They’re about kicking up dust on a country road, juice dripping off my chin. They’re about childhood and family and beauty and truth. Late last winter I planted my first in what I hope will be a grove of Chickasaw plums out near the chicken house. It bore one plum, plucked at peak ripeness by one of our resident Cardinals. This morning, its bloom buds near bursting promise a crop just big enough to share. And my Alabama ditch bank? Only a memory paved over by progress.

 

Sources:

Edible Landscapes, Afton, VA – http://www.ediblelandscaping.com

Ison’s Nursery and Vineyards, Brooks, GA – http://www.isons.com

Stark Brothers – http://www.starkbros.com

Just Fruits and Exotics, Crawfordville, FL – http://www.justfruitsandexotics.com

 

Blooming now – HelleboresSAM_2194

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Language of Flowers

Love and Memories in the Language of Flowers

 

In the Language of Flowers my grandmother would have been a cactus. If dour sprung from a turnip or burdock represented intractable, then her nosegay would have been composed of a prickly pear, a purple top and dock. Or, this is what I thought for a time, for a season, or two.

*

The rain tracked westward dragging in its wake a breeze spiced with resin. Sitting in lawn chairs rendered shabby chic by hot sun and one too many tropical storms, my mother and I swatted at yellow flies. Slash pines sketched the ground in Whoville shadows, bruising our faces in their retreat from the silvered hide of my Grandmother’s Airstream trailer at our backs.

Clamoring for our attention, orange and yellow marigolds screamed at each other across a stage of root-muscled earth. Pink and purple Petunias pranced like kindergarten ballerinas against a curtain of saucy Caladiums while fiery Zinnias, red-hot pokers and bloody cockscombs cackled their bawdy jokes from the wings. A lone pink waved from a crack in the cement slab beneath our feet.

Two dogs, out for a day of socializing, trotted toward a triple row of black-eyed Susans hedging the show. As if finding the dare , they checked at the corner, looked toward the trailer and launching themselves over the Rudbeckia set off at a dead run; just beyond good rock-chucking distance. Sailing across to the other side, they skidded to a stop, glanced back, moved on, another afternoon meander.

It was a Sunday. Prayers were winding down for my grandmother at the church across the field.

I inhaled the soft southern air and, tilting my head toward a bucket of morning glories sprawling at my feet, asked, “Mom, where in the world did all this spring from?”

Beneath her dun-colored bonnets my grandmother looked out upon a world sorely in need of a good shaking. In her presence I slunk; we all did, hunkering down out of her sight line. Granny loomed to Biblical proportions in a body barely five feet tall.

In her yard pine needles fell with an apology. If she’d felled everything within her domain and dared it to re-sprout, no one would have been surprised. And, yet, here we were ankle-deep in flowers.

“Did Granny have a garden? When you were a little girl?”

My mother looked over at me. Opened her mouth. Closed it. Squinted. Sought an answer in the tall pines. Dropping her eyes to her hands, she began to worry at a honeysuckle stem.

“You know, it was on the tip of my tongue to say all my Mama ever gardened was cotton, peanuts and Dominecker hens. But…” She hesitated, sifting through memories. A car door slammed over at the church across the field.

“I remember the house yard. Had a wire fence around it. Mama used to sweep it with a gallberry broom, punishing it down to bare clay. By the time she passed the broom on to me, the ground next to the fence rose up a good 18 inches higher than the middle; kind of like a dirt farmer’s version of a HaHa.” My mother dropped the stem and popped off a bloom, held it to her nose.

Memory picking, my Mother sorted, discarded. She looked at me. Slowly, light like an Easter sunrise flushed her face, and she began. “But out back, between the smokehouse and the clothesline, there was an old syrup kettle she used to boil our clothes in on wash day. I remember sitting on the edge of it with Jessie picking a bouquet from the flowers planted inside. Four O’Clocks?” She shook her head as if to rattle free their identity.

“Anyway, around the outside of the kettle was a circle of more flowers. Reds and purples, pinks. And then around that Mama’d laid out these bricks.

“And there was a fig tree. We’d play like the leaves were our dinner plates. And Jessie, just a little bitty girl, would scramble up to the top to pick the biggest, prettiest ones. Sometimes we’d lie under it with a leaf laying over our faces, our arms folded over our chests.” I watched a dove shuffle among the pine needles, heard another car door slam over at the church.

“There was a rose, too, climbing over the smokehouse, so burdened down it looked like it might buckle at the knees. The flowers were yellow, like sunshine. Mama called it her ‘Lady’. And another rose looked like a ball gown. Blooms always reminded me of that verse. You know. ‘Of cabbages and kings’”. My mother’s voice was a whisper now.

“There was a bush at one end of the clothesline. She kept it pruned so it looked like a giant toadstool. The line pole shot straight up out of the middle. Mama said it was a tea shrub. The clothesline seemed always full of dungarees, socks, dresses and the like, but the sheets she spread over her tea shrub.” My mother, she’s eight years old, again, lying beneath a fig tree. Her mother sails a sheet into the wind, flicks, holds tight, wins the tug-of-war. It settles to dry atop a mound of green.

“We saw it bloom once, me and Jessie. One flower. Blood red. We didn’t say a word, not even to each other; afraid Mama’d be out there with the cutters. But, come wash day she just tucked the sheets up around that flower, like a blanket around a baby.”

A hawk’s cry jarred the silence. Mom tracked its flight across the sky, her gaze tangling high in the pines. From the church I could hear the sound of a car crunching across gravel, voices.

“On the day Jessie fell I couldn’t find Mama at first. Finally come across her kneeling next to the clothesline. I’d run all the way from school and I couldn’t catch my breath to tell her. Joe come up behind me said ‘Jessie’s hurt.’ One minute Mama was there, the next I was standing all alone staring at a bucket full of wood’s dirt. A coffee can lay next to it with this little bitty vine spilling out, roots all naked and the sun baking down. I set it back in the can, pushed some dirt around it. I still remember the smell, earth and roses and smoky ham.

“Jessie died on a Sunday.”

Memories ended as the ring of bells and the heat from the sun cut through the pines. Noon. We both looked over at the church. I saw my grandmother, a metaphor for the live oak that humanizes so much of our deep south – limbs gnarled, stooped toward the ground by a lifetime of troubles; the Spanish moss swinging from its branches a color match for her thinning hair. She started across the field stepping high, and I thought of the resurrection fern that inhabits the nooks and crannies of the live oak. As she plowed through the fennel weed, lingering rain darkened the hem of her Sunday best.

The following January, weary from her ninety-eight years and another winter, my grandmother left her garden for an eternal spring.

*

My sister parked out front under a Chinaberry tree. The two of us climbed out of the car, followed by my daughter, Kim. We waited. My mother needed a little time. The house where she grew up, where her little sister died, where a little garden grew out back between a clothesline and a smokehouse, still stood on the land my uncle bought with the ashes of his conscience. But the house had become a kudzu-shrouded shell, rusting tin curling gap-toothed to the sky.

Listening for squeaks of surrender, we picked our way across the front porch boards. Inside, a well of gloom haunted us across the floor. Bricks had tumbled from the fireplace, scattering the smell of soot and sorrow. Cobwebs swung from the rafters.

Accompanied by muffled scurrying, we shuffled across shifting beams and stepped off the back porch to a flurry of crows. Thirty feet to the south lay a jumble of old poplar boards rendered in hickory smoke and brine. Across an echo of purples and pinks, bouquets and laughter, a wizened crone of a fig tree threw up lichened branches to grip a post, axed by rot. From the half-dozen leaves still clinging to a stem, I recognized Granny’s tea tree – a Camellia sasanqua, variety known only to the past.

Thirty years since my grandmother left us, and I wonder in this fickle spring if in an Alabama field a Camellia still lives in a fig tree’s embrace.

SAM_2439

There are gardens open to us of such a strong sense of place, they connect us, not only to our pasts, but to who we are now:

Gibbs Gardens – Ball Ground, Georgia    http://www.gibbsgardens.com

Chanticleer Garden – Wayne, Pennsylvania   http://www.chanticleergarden.org

Cheekwood Estate and Gardens – Nashville, Tennessee    http://www.cheekwood.org

Winterthur – Winterthur, Delaware    http://www.winterthur.org

 

And books that tell us of the elements in the making of such a garden:

The Gardens of Arne Maynard and Gardens with Atmosphere by Arne Maynard

Home Ground: Sanctuary in the City by Dan Pearson

The Morville Hours by Katherine Swift

 

A White Oak, a Cypress Grove and a Flawed Miracle

Startled from winter’s dark torpor by a thump worthy of a Hagrid, we looked at each other and rose to face what waited outside in the night. The beam of our flashlights swept the path leading from the kitchen to the back garden and caught an opossum poised for escape. Fat though he was on grubs and bird seed, he was too pint-sized for a sound the magnitude we’d heard. Slipping to the kitchen’s side doors, John flipped on the light and aimed his torch down the walk, through the pergola to a scene straight out of our own personal Dark Forest. A cataclysmic force of nature as told by the Brothers Grimm, carrying with it a miracle, flawed but full of magic and grace. Slain by merciless rain and implacable gravity, a massive white oak tree slumped dying across a hundred feet of garden, its massive roots pawing at the wind on the other side of the creek. Its branches, broken and twisted, now lay at our feet, inches from the arbor clothed in ‘Polish Spirit’ longing for spring.

With only a whimper of light to mark our way, we passed down the length of our fallen oak. Out there in the dark, in the path of the great tree, lay the fate of others, wonders all, that I’d planted one by one over these last years. I swung the torch westward and illuminated the Magnolia ‘The Woodsman its fattening buds trembling but intact. Feeling my way, I encountered the slender branches of the young Magnolia pyramidata, all there and accounted for. John swept his flashlight right, then left. The grove of cypress appear unscathed. At last I turned east and looked for the winter bones of my Hovenia dulcis, my Japanese Raisin tree, bought in part for the poetry of its name, and found it still whole and beautiful in this its seventh year. I exhaled. On the way back, I almost stumbled over a small Cryptomeria japonica ‘Black Dragon’, wounded, mutilated – this miracle’s dusky side.

Before surrendering to the torrential storms of this past chaotic winter, the oak had clung to the lowest slope of a wooded hillside that climbed at a roller coaster pitch, teaching a lesson in the tenacity of trees. With the onset of the colder months, the sun sinking ever lower in the sky skirted the ridge line, flashing through the forest of beech, oak, poplar and redbud in a teasing memory of summer and a promise of spring. Along with me the trees dwell in a season of gloom. I wonder if they dread it as I do.

This land has been farmed for close to two-hundred years, tilled first by a moldboard plow behind a team of mules. In the first half of the previous century, mechanization arrived in the hills of Tennessee and a Ford 8N began the circuit of this particular three-acre parcel – year after year – forming a berm like a cresting wave along the creek bank. Thirty feet to the north, the land begins a gentle slope skyward, turning a worn out tobacco field into a swamp.

Our first year we cut drainage ditches that silted full by autumn. We dug again year two. Year three found me standing in water lapping over the toes of my Wellies, contemplating removing the “lip” from three-hundred feet of creek bank bordering the worst of the flooded area. There, fueled by aggravation, bloomed an epiphany. I’d plant Taxodium distichum, a reminder of a childhood spent playing in the cypress bogs of my deeper south.

We planted eight – bareroot, four feet tall. Topping eight feet by their fourth year in the ground, they were already making a difference, their roots soaking up excess water. After a rain days of standing water turned into a few hours. We planted another eight two years ago.

Now on either side of the downed oak, our grove of beautiful cypress trees stood firm – trunks spreading like buttresses, “knees” popping up around them.

Making hay while the sun shone, John revved up the chain saw and cut the oak trunk and larger branches into eight foot sections, stacking the kindling-sized debris in temporary piles for the wrens, chickadees and finches to enjoy. From the confusion of branches, I eyeballed a selection, four to five-inches in diameter, and rolled them into the edging divots I’d made along the garden where I’d extended the beds – yet again. Contributing even in death, the oak would last until I could come up with a more permanent solution, leaving behind its spirit as compost for the soil.

Connecting the ancient roadbed across the creek to the cypress grove on this side, the last of the great tree rests. Almost three feet in diameter, it will remain. A bridge to the other side.

 

Sources:

Taxodium distichum – http://www.coldstreamfarm.net

Hovenia dulcis http://www.forestfarm.com

Chicken Delinquents

SAM_0895

 

 

Much bustling and gossiping greeted me and the steaming bowl of grits I carried. I shoved the door to the chicken’s run closed with my foot and slid the brick in place to hold it. Dumping their cold morning treat into their outside pan, I left them to it – harassing each other, screaming hissy fits, sure the morsel their sisters carried in a grit-crusted beak was far superior to their own. I opened the gate to their adjoining run, the one I called their Elysian field.

Up until last spring, this flock of six – three Ameraucana of the blue eggs and three, chocolate egg laying, Cuckoo Marans – foraged the gardens every afternoon with the manners of refined young ladies out for a stroll. Always mindful of their curfew, twilight signaled their return home to roost. Then one warm April morn, they rose from their slumbers possessed by the likes of Madame DeFarge and began to lay waste to the countryside. And the ringleader, one fat Cuckoo defied the sun, defied her curfew, refusing to start home without a chase.

I come from generations of chicken stewards, and with the exception of a sparse number of years bondage in city and suburb, I’ve always kept a small flock. And I’ve always allowed them an afternoon’s foray into the wilds of my garden. Obeying one of the commandments for healthy poultry, I gave them more than adequate housing room and room to roam. But after weeks of second chances, I’d had enough of their marauding and pillaging.

Shortly after, John bought more poultry wire and began enclosing an area adjacent to the existing run, enlarging it to the chicken equivalent of the Superdome, with real turf. Our self-established field mixture of rye, Bermuda, dandelion, ground ivy, wild onion, clover – left to its own devices – would encourage edible critters and provide a gourmet feast for our delinquent fowl. Add in the additional botanical accouterments planted by a hard grubbing gardener and the result was chicken paradise, an Elysian field.

In one corner a ‘Brown Turkey’ fig provides shade in the summer and tempts a greedy flock with it low-hanging fruits come Autumn. An unknown, Arbor Day Foundation crabapple does the same from the center of the run. Better yet, a voluptuous cerise colored bloomer, the Gallica rose ‘Hippolyte’, shelters the hens from predator hawks. For those chickens who prefer a white boudoir, Damask ‘Madame Plantier’ climbs the fence and tangles itself in the Stayman Winesap apple tree outside the field. When the all clear sounds, the hens can shake themselves free of their Chicken Little fright and use the dirt underneath the roses for a dust bath, keeping them free of  mites.

The girls have finished, now, and joined me in Elysian field. One spots a floating seed head and doddles off to sample it. On such a day with the sky pale from the cold, I find it hard to envision a coming spring. The almond trees and the pecans and peaches look gaunt, color absent from their trunks as if preparing for death, beautiful in their resignation. But at the tips of their branches, I see a flush of color like fingers thawing from frostbite. No need to bargain with the gods yet, resurrection is nigh. Maybe it will speak to second chances.

 

 

SAM_2543
The chicken eye view of David Austin’s ‘Munstead Wood’

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Fragrance of Winter

The flowering apricot, P. mume 'Nicholas', bloom in the winter garden with a fragrance reminiscent of spring behind the garden gates of Old Charleston.

 

 

       For days the high temperatures hovered in the 20’s, the lows trembling in single digits. Outside the kitchen window the Full Wolf Moon hung just above the ridge top. I closed the shutters and took myself to bed.

         The next morning I woke to sunlight warm upon my face, and then I smelled it – the slightest promise of a thaw. And inhaling, a hint of something more, like the scent of hope and of memory. Following my nose, I stepped outside the front door and on an exhale was transported to springtime in Charleston a decade ago. Exploring a Hobbit-sized and cobbled street, I stumbled against a pair of tall iron gates wrought in roses and vine. From the garden beyond, reflected in whorls of white and greens and pale azures, floated the same perfume that greeted me that February day at the end of my garden path. That remembered fragrance of white Narcissus and pearled Daphne and cool blue hyacinths blending with the scent of moss on old stone and breezes off salt water.

And then, across a distance of a hundred footsteps, I saw her – Prunus mume ‘Bridal Veil’.  Three years before, along the walk to the hen-house, I’d planted her, my untried treasure from Camellia Forest Nursery in Chapel Hill, NC.

Since, I’ve added ‘Nicholas’, ‘Pink Panther’, another ‘Bridal Veil’ and ‘Peggy Clarke’ – four of them. I placed the the trees where the morning sun would shine on their heads, and they could bask in its light until mid-afternoon. Not fussy or fickle in their needs, the rain and I watered them well the first year, and after that the rain has gone it alone.  Every spring, they get a top-dressing of home made compost and nothing else.

Small trees, flowering apricots range from fifteen to twenty-five feet at maturity, and about that wide. Here, ‘Nicholas’s’ winter silhouette looks like that of  a Tiffany vase or an old-fashioned “Gibson Girl” – narrow hipped and busty. ‘Pink Panther’ is shaped like that same “girl” after too many dishings of clotted cream. In their youth the Peggys remind me a little of Cindy Who. And ‘Bridal Veil’, she weeps and is so beautiful.

P. mume 'Bridal Veil'
P. mume ‘Bridal Veil’

 

 

Their fall color? I hate to say, I’ve seldom noticed, what with the Japanese maples, the Katsuras, the bald cypresses, sourgums, sweet gums. The unassuming sisters playing wallflower to their flashier siblings, Prunus mume mostly turns a nice serviceable gold with moments of orangey glory.

In this zone 7 garden, they flower for weeks – the buds continuing to open throughout February and into March – in colors ranging from white, to blush, to rose. (Some varieties hardy to zone 5.)  Only the fully opened blossoms tempt fate in a blustery cold snap. I never pass the fairy-like blooms without gathering a few to float in the seashells I have in every room of our old house. They bring with them  their scent of hope and sweet memories.

Outside now, snow is falling and the temperature is to drop into the teens tonight. But on my walk to close in the chickens for the evening, I passed through my grove of Prunus mume and witnessed their swelling buds. Soon, soon.

 

Photo Credits:  Camellia Forest Nursery

Resources:

http://www.forestfarm.com                                          http://www.whitmanfarms.com               http://www.camforest.com                                           http://www.raintreenursery.com