COLORFUL EARS, AND TASTY, TOO

Popcorn Traditions

I was surprised at the different colors of my ears this fall — popcorn ears, that is. ‘Pink Pearl’ popcorn lived up to its name, yielding short ears with shiny, pink kernels. Peeling back each dry husk of ‘Pennsylvania Dutch Butter Flavored’ popcorn revealed rows of creamy white kernels. The surprise came from some ears from either bed whose kernels were multi-colored, each in a different way, with some kernels mahogany-red, some pale pink, some dark pink, and some lemon yellow.

I plan to bring some of these popped kernels to Thanksgiving dinner, just as Native American chief Massasoit’s brother, Quadequina, brought along a sack of popped popcorn to the first Thanksgiving feast almost four centuries ago.

Popcorn predates that first Thanksgiving in America by thousands of years. Kernels have been found in the remains of Central American settlements of almost 7000 years ago. The Quichas of Peru and the Aztecs …

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FORWARD, WITH FIGS

Potted Figs, but First a “Haircut”

Temperatures here have dipped into the lower 20s a few nights and still dip readily to around freezing, which might lead some of you to believe I have been neglectful of my fig trees, which are still outdoors. Not so! They are subtropical plants that can take temperatures down into the ‘teens.

Today I moved all my potted figs to their winter home. As I wrote in my book Growing Figs in Cold Climates, fig, being a subtropical plant, likes cold winters, just not those that are too, too cold. My plants went either into my basement, where winter temperatures hover in the 40s, or into my walk-in cooler (also used for storing fruits and vegetables) whose temperature is nailed at 39°.

One of my friend Sara’s figs in summer

I always prune my figs before nestling them into the basement or the cooler. Then …

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IN WHICH A SMALL GAS MOLECULE HAS A BIG EFFECT

It’s a Gas

Ethylene is so simple. It’s a gas made up of merely two atoms of carbon and four atoms of hydrogen. Simple gases are generally not the kinds of molecules that make plant hormones which, like human hormones, are generally complex molecules with dramatic effects at extremely low concentrations. Nonetheless, ethylene is a plant hormone. I thought of ethylene as I sunk my teeth into the last garden-fresh peppers of the season a couple of weeks ago. Note that I wrote “fresh,” not “fresh-picked.” 

Those peppers were picked week or two before being eaten. I picked any green peppers showing the slightest hints of red, then spread them out on a tray. Many gardeners do this with tomatoes. I like peppers a lot more than tomatoes so only occasionally try to prolonging the season of fresh tomatoes.

It’s ethylene that’s responsible for the transformations from unripe to ripe. Ethylene is produced …

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MY NEW BOOK IS OUT!!

My newly published Fruit: From the USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection (Abbeville Press, 2022), now available here as well as from the usual sources, is a fusion of art, science and history in a 4.4” x 4.7” hardcover volume of 288 pages. The pocket-sized folio is like a miniature coffee table book, a celebration of fruit-growing in an earlier America with a wealth of historical context and scientific information. The first half of the book is devoted to a range of apple varieties, many with unfamiliar and quaint names; most of these cultivars now lost to time. Subsequent chapters cover pears and other pomes, stone fruits, citrus, berries and miscellaneous fruits such as avocados, pomegranates, persimmons and nuts.

Here are some details:

Between 1886 and 1942, the US Department of Agriculture employed a total of 20 artists, mostly women, to paint watercolors of various fruit varieties. The seventy-five hundred luscious watercolors were used for …

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A DIFFICULT NUT TO GET TO, BUT WORTH IT (IMHO)

Free Eats, and Delicious

After last year’s bumper crop of black walnuts, filberts, and acorns, I didn’t expect much this year, nutwise. As I looked up into the few black walnut trees bordering the farmden, my low expectations seemed justified. In desperation of securing my annual supply of black walnuts, I gave a shoutout to the local community for black walnuts. I got good feedback — of trees, trees that, as the nut season approached, proved to be barren.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I noticed a few black walnuts on the ground beneath a couple of my favorite trees right here. A few days later, the ground was littered with nuts, perhaps not as much as in previous years, but still plenty. So it was time to get to work (details a few paragraphs ahead).

Too many people have never tasted a black walnut. That’s too bad. The nuts are distinctively …

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BITTERSWEET MEMORIES

I Almost Become Very, Very Rich

My vision became blurred with dollar signs as I looked out the car window at mile after mile of bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) clambering over trees along a stretch of parkway. That was a few years ago, as I was driving away from a visit to New York City. While there, I had wandered into a florists’ shop, where I had been stunned by the price for a few sprigs of bittersweet. A quick mental calculation as I gazed out the car window told me there was gold in them thar’ trees.

My financial empire crumbled before it even had a chance to grow. In some states, bittersweet is a protected plant. Anyone harvesting a protected plant from private property without the landowner’s permission may be subject to a fine.

To look at bittersweet, you might very well mistake it for a weed. The plant is a rampant, …

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MY FIG GROWS OLD, AND LOOKS IT

Weeping Fig, Growth in Check

My little fig tree put on a lot of new growth this year. Let me qualify this statement. By “fig,” in this case, I mean my weeping fig (Ficus benjamina). It’s a relative of edible fig, also edible (but rarely eaten), and a common houseplant, valued for its relaxed appearance, its small, glossy green leaves, and its tolerance for indoor environments. By “a lot of new growth,” I mean a half an inch or so.

Despite that meager growth, the plant has grown too large. Nothing like it would have grown outdoors in open ground in the tropics, where this trees’ branches quickly soar skyward and sideways to the size of our sugar maples. From those branches drip aerial roots which anchor themselves in the ground, the ones nearest the trunk eventually merging together to become part of a fattening trunk.

My little fig, you probably guessed by …

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AN AUTUMN VEGETABLE FROM FRANCE, FROM BELGIUM, OR IS IT BATAVIA?

Saying It is Easy; Naming It, Not so Easy

Pinch your nose with your fingers and say “on.” Follow that with a long, drawn out, “d-e-e-e-e-v,” your mouth in a smile to get emphasis on the e’s. Endive. I once considered endive to be lackluster in flavor, so needed to be offset with this highfalutin pronunciation. After many years of growing endive, I’ve come to recognize a more distinct flavor, nutty and just slightly bitter.

Endive, frisee & escarole

(This is the first time I’ve used “nutty” to describe a flavor, having recently figured out what it means. Nut-like. Duh. Hints of nuttiness are found in the flavors of many foods, including seeds, wines, beans oils, cheeses, fish, and, of course, almonds, hazelnuts, and other actual nuts. Since writing the above description of endive flavor, I learned that others have also described its flavor as nutty. QED)

Whether you consider endive flavor …

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TOMATOES & CORN, TWO ALL-AMERICANS

Ode to Sungold

As the curtain closes on the summer garden and the autumn garden edges towards its glory, I’d like to offer thanks. No, not a religious thanks for a summer of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, okra, and other warm weather vegetables. But thanks to a person, the person who bred Sungold cherry tomato.

Anyone not familiar with Sungold tomato should be. It’s sweet and tangy, not at all cloying, enveloped in persimmon-orange skin. I once grew over 20 varieties of cherry tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum var. cerasiforme), including Sungold, for a magazine article. As a friend walked down the row, sampling fruit from each plant, she proclaimed, “That’s one row of lousy tomatoes.”

Agreed, excepting a few varieties, one of which was, of course, Sungold. The other exceptions were Gardener’s Delight, Sweet Million, and Suncherry, all three of which are rarely seen these days, probably because Sungold eclipsed the others with its distinctive …

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MORE OF MY FAVORITE TH . . . GRAPE VARIETIES

The Birds and the B . . . Vespids

Hot and dry. What great summer weather it’s been here for grapes. Most years around this date, I’d go out every morning and pick bunches for fresh eating, continuing to do so for weeks to come.

Alas, where there are grapes, you’ll find the birds and the be. . . vespids (the family of wasps and hornets, not bees). No raccoons or foxes, here on my grapes, at least. Here you’ll also find paper bags stapled around about a hundred bunches.

The bags are meant to protect the enclosed bunches from birds and insects. This year was a first: Thirsty birds pecked holes in the bags through which they could reach, then peck at the grapes hanging within. By my estimate, about three-quarters of the bagged bunches suffered damage or were finished off in toto. 

In addition to the damage inflicted by the birds, …

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