Monthly Archives: November 2015

THE UGLY, THE TASTY, & THE BEAUTIFUL

Close Your Eyes, If Necessary

   “A crabby looking, brownish green truncated little spheroid of unsympathetic appearance.” That’s how a British writer of almost 75 years ago described one of my favorite fruits, medlar (Mespilus germanica). True, the fruit is no beauty to some eyes. To me, the fruit has an authentic, old-fashioned, unvarnished look to it, like that of a small, russeted apple whose calyx end (opposite the stem) is flared open.

Medlars, ready for harvest

    Medlar is truly an old-fashioned fruit, whose popularity peaked in the Middle Ages. Chaucer mentioned it, indecorously referring to it as “open arse.” Even Shakespeare got his digs in, more discretely call it “open et cetera.”    This past season was a good season for fruits, including medlar. Yesterday, I harvested the crop from the leafless tree. But no, I couldn’t yet sink my teeth into one. Besides its odd appearance, medlar has one …

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SUSTAINABLE DIRT

 Dirt is Free, Almost

   Sustainability is such a buzzword these days. Okay, I’ll join the crowd and say, “I’m growing fruits and vegetables sustainably.” But is this true. Can they really be grown sustainably, that is, in such a way to be able to continue forever?    As any plant grows, it sucks nutrients from the soil. Harvest the plant and you take those nutrients off-site. Eventually, those nutrients need replenishment. That’s what fertilizer does, but spreading fertilizer — whether organic or chemical — is hardly sustainable. Organic fertilizers, such as soybean meal, need to be grown, harvested (taking nutrients off site), processed, bagged, and transported. Chemical fertilizers need to be mined and processed, or manufactured, and then also bagged and transported.    About half the volume of most soils is mineral, the rest being air, water, and organic matter. The mineral portion derives from rocks that, with time, temperature changes, and …

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SWEET ANNIE AND SWEET GRAPES

Annie Helps the World

    Sweet Annie (Artemisia annua): such an unassuming name. Likewise for the plant itself, with its ferny, but not distinctive, foliage, and flowers not worth a second look. You’d hardly peg this plant as a player in global health and global warming.    But look within the leaves and you find artemisin, a biologically active compound that has contributed to Sweet Annie’s figuring into Chinese herbal medicine for the past 2,000 years. Artemisin was isolated from the plant in the 1970s by Chinese scientist Tu Youyou, for which she  shared a Nobel Prize. Sweet Annie’s uses in Chinese medicine — qinghao in Chinese — run from treating asthma to skin diseases to stomach pain to rheumatism to  . . . but not all such claims have been experimentally verified (and Sweet Annie could have bad side effects).    The most widespread and thoroughly documented use of Sweet Annie …

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NUTS OVER CHESTNUTS

American Chestnuts, Gone but not Dead

The chestnuts are big and fat and tasty — obviously not American chestnuts. I harvest so many chestnuts, also big and fat, each year from my Colossal variety trees that I never bothered to look beneath my Marigoule trees. Marigoule is planted further from my house than Colossal.

Marigoule chestnuts

    American chestnuts, Castanea dentata, are small but very tasty, or so I have read and heard. I’ve never tasted one. The trees were devastated by a blight throughout the early 20th century. Previous to blight, the trees were so numerous in our eastern forests that it was said that a squirrel leaping from one chestnut branch to another could travel from Maine to Georgia without touching the ground.    Something like 40 billion trees died to the ground. But roots survive, sprouting new shoots each year to provide a host to keep the blight fungus …

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