Spring is in full swing, with plenty of soil moisture, warming temperatures and frost damage hopefully fading in the rear view mirror. Ferns unfurl, wildflower foliage and blooms carpet the forest floor, and the days of heavy coats pass. I hope.
Asimina biloba, our state native fruit tree, is the northernmost plant of the Annonaceae, the soursop or custard apple family. My favorite feature of papayas – more common in southern Ohio and more southern states – are the flowers, wonderfully described by horticulturist Michael Dirr as “ominous purple blooms, rarely seen by the uninitiated” .
Although I recently read an article that disparaged papaya flowers, I consider them to be among the most beautiful of all native trees. Yes, they go unnoticed unless you’re looking for them because they come out just before their leaves appear. Yes, the flowers are an unusual dark color unless lit by sunlight viewed from below, and their aroma, enjoyed not by birds, bees and butterflies, but by flies and weevils, is certainly not that of the lilac.
As for the fruits, they were once a food source for behemoths before these “ghosts of evolution,” extinct elephant-like mammals survived their fitness test. Papaya fruits were an important food source for Lewis & Clark explorers on their westward voyages and provided feasts during their days of famine.
They have something of a sweet-sickly flavor. Fruit is a good source of vitamin C, but avoid unripe fruits, twigs, and seeds as they are a source of neurotoxins and alkaloids, like other Annonaceae plants such as sweetsop and soursop ( none grow here).
Ripe edible fruit is becoming increasingly popular in Ohio and the eastern United States, especially as flavor enhancers in beers and ciders, and Graeter’s Ice Cream once even made ice cream with papaya for a banquet of papaya lovers.
Enjoy the large greenish-blue leaves resembling banana trees, the majestic shape in the sun and the patches of interconnected trees in the shady woods, the taste of ripe fruit and the very fresh (do not eat) large polished seeds.
And learn more: Register for the Ohio Pawpaw Conference on May 21 at Ohio State University’s Piketon Centers in southern Ohio and for the annual Ohio Pawpaw Festival scheduled for September 16 in Albany County. ‘Athens of Southeast Ohio.
wild apples revisited
Last week, I reported on the early week emergence of the spectacular ‘Strawberry Perfect’ crabapple blossoms at OSU’s Arboretum Secrest in Wooster. It was true, until it wasn’t anymore. On Thursday morning last week, the temperature in Wooster plunged to 24 degrees – and the flowers of ‘Strawberry Parfait’ froze, then melted.
However, all was not lost.
First, the trees are fine; it was only the blossoms (and subsequent fruit) that were lost, and for crabapples the loss of fruit is not as great as on apples, most of which were spared as they usually come out a bit more later than the cheekbones.
Second, among crabapples (apples less than 2 inches in diameter at maturity), ‘Strawberry Parfait’ is an early bloomer, so many types of Secrest’s Crablandia crabapples were still in protective buds. A good example is the Canadian cultivar ‘Rosseau’, a large Secrest specimen that has flowered spectacularly this week. Other fine specimens included ‘Sargentina’, a dwarf-dwarf crabapple that interestingly shows sunny yellow stamens emerging from the buds like night stars before the white petals and full blooms emerge. Also, in my garden, the soft pink petals of ‘Louisa’ weeping crabapple were particularly graceful this year, as were the intense pinks and corals of ‘Candymint’, another Sargent type.
My wife enjoys the wonderful Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Merlin birder’s phone app. You hold your phone to match the bird calls you hear with the birds you sometimes see.
This helped us identify the tree swallow that was recently on a bluebird house at the Secrest Arboretum. Apparently, this is common behavior for this aggressive bird that breeds in cavities, including those in houses intended for other birds. It’s a nice blue-green on top with white underneath.
Last Sunday, Merlin identified the call of a Baltimore Oriole, though we didn’t see that orange-and-black bird (whose baseball version we won’t see at Progressive Field until August 30). This inability to identify calling birds is what kept me from becoming a competent birder for years; I prefer wildflowers because they don’t move and I can spend more time identifying details. Merlin, however, is a great magician’s helper.
The Merlin app is named after a little falcon, and it reminds me of one of my favorite stories in “The Once and Future King” in which Merlin the Wizard teaches future King Arthur with the ultimate in experiential learning. Want to know more about a fish? — Merlin transforms Arthur into a fish to swim; or a bird? – he turns Arthur into a hovering falcon. We all need a magician as our tutor!
Speaking of birds, I recently spent an hour in a rocking chair with my 3-year-old grandson, Miles, flipping through a wonderful book: Avian Illuminations: A Cultural History of Birds by Boria Sax. It focuses on the role of birds in history, art, philosophy, religion. Think about the place of birds in our world and in our imagination. The Phoenix rises from its ashes. The thunderbird of the Haida culture of the Pacific Northwest. The harpy of Greek mythology.
The dove of peace. Carrier pigeons. Our national symbol of the bald eagle. Tony Soprano’s Duck Obsession. The swooping murmurs of starlings. The imaginary wisdom of owls. Crows feeding Elijah in the desert, forever. “Wheat Field with Crows” by Vincent Van Gogh. Alfred Hitchcock and the Menacing Birds as Nature Turns Against Us. Cave paintings. And the literature and images in this book, from the painting of the mythical rukh flying with an elephant, to the actual photos of a swan in flight, of an arctic tern on its long migratory outing, to “I would like to paint like a bird sings. And I’d still be “delighted to the core” to see a brown canary/ruby-throated sparrow, from the song “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” by Stephen Stills.
To conclude, from the 19th and 20th century American naturalist and writer John Burroughs: “The very idea of a bird is a symbol and a suggestion for the poet. A bird seems to be at the top of the scale, so vehement and intense in its life – big brain, big lungs, hot, ecstatic, its frame loaded with buoyancy and its heart singing. ”
Jim Chatfield is a horticulture educator and professor emeritus at Ohio State University Extension. If you have questions about maintaining your garden and other topics, email [email protected] or call 330-466-0270. Please include your phone number if writing.