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Fruit of the Limb

August 4, 2010

Our efforts to create as sustainable a homestead as reasonably possible has thus far been a little thin on food-producing trees. Our five acres feature mostly locust, sycamore maple, red maple, oak, chokecherry and a smattering of gray birch and cedar. Replacing the invasive maple forest with fruit and nut trees would require some visits to town hall and a philosophical shift. I like to keep the unfenced corridor for deer and following coyotes and I appreciate the wide spectrum of wildlife that the woods support. I also appreciate the privacy from neighboring properties and the shade and wind block the stand provides.

There are some food benefits to be gained from our existing trees. Locust provides a strong nectar flow for our bees, and I’ve had to change my stance on those shallow rooted legume-family members. Hurricanes taught me to despise locusts, as they are always the first to drop their 50- or 60-feet of wood on any cars or homes in their shadows. After cutting down all the locusts close to the house, and after nearly a decade of beekeeping, I’m keeping up my end of a truce with the tall honey trees. There are still power lines and driveways in their path, so we’ll see how I feel about that after the next Gloria or Bob.

Oak is a seldom tapped food source, but obscure literature reveals its currency among various Native American tribes who ground the meats into flour. The use of locust flour was common among Appalachian people during especially thin times. Acorns are also a traditional fattener and finisher for pigs. I haven’t yet hung my bag of acorns in a clear, moving stream to remove the bitterness and then ground the meats to make flour, but talk to me in November and I may be able to report on the culinary value of acorn flour in tortillas.

We do have a few trees that produce edible fruit and they are showing off their merits now. I planted two apple trees nearly half a dozen years ago, and though they haven’t seemed to get much taller, they do produce apples. Our harvest was stunted this year by a tent caterpillar infestation, but some blossoms survived and apples are doing their best to grow and make up for the loss.

Our big surprise this year was the peach trees that I planted just months ago this spring. They were covered in blossoms when I placed them in the back of a borrowed pick-up truck and took them on a ride down Suicide Alley (Route 6) to Orleans. I thought the blossoms would fall under the stress of transplantation, but they held on and the meager boughs soon budded out and became laden with fruit. We are now happy to see many peaches close in on maturity. I hope the trees won’t suffer from producing so much fruit so soon after being transplanted, but I am hoping plentiful amounts of goat manure and tons of water will help them enter the winter strong. I planted them in a sunny, warm, sheltered microclimate, and we’ve had pretty peachy weather this summer, as well.

Chokecherries are probably the most misunderstood fruit in our local environment, and I haven’t any secret knowledge to elucidate you about their worth. I learned about the bitter little berries when my grandmother sent us out to gather them from her beachside property. She claimed to seek them for a chokecherry jam, and, though I heard much about that jam, I don’t think I ever saw it made or tasted it. Maybe it was like the ‘razor clam marinara’ we dug razors for on the flats but never enjoyed. (I’ve since eaten plenty of razor clam marina, and while it is good, when you are digging razors right next to quahogs and steamers, why target the toughest clam on the beach?) Mythical jam be damned, I harvested those chokecherries like they were the last berries on earth. I remember collecting them with my aunt from Connecticut one summer. Every time I found a stem brimming with even more berries than the last, I would exclaim, “OH MY GOD!!!” For some reason, I suspect I must have been around 11-years-old. My aunt would calmly but quickly reply, “Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain.” I muttered, “Sorry,” and tried to bite my lip, but the next thing you know, another stem simply bursting with berries would appear in front of me – “OH MY GOD!!”

We are in ohmygod season around here now. I tried to rekindle the passion, gathering a few berries and eating them. The bitterness was as startling but far less fun than I remembered. Sugar, I suspect, or honey might make them palatable, but I don’t want to eat something that is 90 percent sugar and 10 percent chokecherry. I’m thinking chokecherry wine, but the fruits are very tiny and the trees awfully tall.

One special tree we’ve been tending carefully is hidden out back behind one of the manure piles and the new compost heap. I keep it under close watch because it is very fragile and its fruits have a tendency to get stolen away. While it is growing well now and producing a few small fruits, I’m very pragmatically preparing myself for its inevitable demise. I hope it can survive the winter, but for as long as I’ve planted this tree, winter has always done it in.

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