Saturday, January 12, 2013

Triumph of the Pears

   Pumpkin Hill  overlooks Cayuga Lake  at the widest point,  and the  lake  reflects an extra dose of sun …. along with a lot of wind … so the  thin, hill-top soil is parched in summer. 
  The Cayuga  Indians probably never tried to plant up here,  preferring the lower, gentler slopes where the soil is thicker, the growing season longer, and water close at hand.

   The  Pumpkin Hill  section was awarded   to one of Washington's generals and was sold on down to a  family from Connecticuit : the Morgans, who traveled  up here by oxcart, possibly unaware until they cleared the land,  of just how thin the  glacier-scraped hill-top soil was. 

      The clearing method that most white settlers used was roughly the same as Sullivan's men used to destroy the Indian orchards around the village below……which itself was was not all that different from the method the Indians had used to prepare a wooded area  for a  ten year planting cycle before leaving it to the deer and berries :  Slash and burn.
     But  the   clearing methods of the white settlers  were the most destructive and didn't include moving on every  ten years to  let the soil come back. 

 In the first year the homesteaders typically  girdled the trees to kill them and let in the light.
        When the trees were dead and dry, some would be hewn for barn and house building, but most would be burnt to charcoal.  
    No doubt some charcoal was reserved for the local forges and   kilns, but the majority was burnt and reduced even further….into  potash, which they shipped down lake and canal along the line of migration to older homesteads that , five or ten years earlier in the history of expansion,  had   burnt  and sold off their own biomass to yet older settlements. 


 The  Morgan family traveled by Oxcart from Conneticuit to Pumpkin Hill,   probably without having seen the soil they were betting on.  
  In the early years,  after rolling the stones off the fields and onto their foundations,   the Morgans plowed the ground and planted wheat. 
    But the plowed    fields became like broken pottery in the hot Summers, and the soil got  thinner with each season….even with the addition of potash imported from newer homesteads up the route of migration. 

   The farm didn't prosper long.    The Morgan boys  one by one moved on down into Aurora, started the masons, and got into politics.  In the eighteen twenties,  the Morgan son who had become a Senator  sold the homestead on down to others   who tried poor-soil crops like potatoes, and then  beans, then table grapes.  

   The last owner of the intact farm planted many acres of    Red Pines that he planned to sell as Christmas trees to send his kids to college.
     In the nineteen seventies, the original house of the  homestead burnt down.

      The plantation pines are now ship-mast size.  
    Much  of the old cleaerd land is hay meadow or cattle range, much second-growth timber.  Most of the hill top and West slope is public hunting land that has not been mowed in many years, and which the state stocks  with pen-raised pheasants  …  which the Coyotes eat most of.   Coyotes, Deer and Turkeys  thrive.
   The four acre remnant of the homestead  where the old home was and Dog's Plot now is,  has  been mowed  only with paths, aisles, and small clearings for the last fifteen or twenty years.    Honeysuckle, Dogwoods, Wild Roses and Brambles are well established.  Buckthorns have  come up, grown old  and died.
      In the meantime,   the stumps of the Cayuga  village Pear victims of General Sullivan had  long ago  sent roots traveling  and sprouting;  the sprouts had become trees that flowered and set seed,     climbing the slopes through generations and evolving a local variety with root systems suited to the thin clay of the glacier-scraped lake basin.   Over the same period,  the fruits themselves reverted to  round and smaller forms, like the ancestral pears of the Caucus mountains  before  European and Asian Pears went their separate ways.   

      When I first moved here,  I busted through the hardpan clay, added soil, and planted a couple of dozen fruit trees, including Pears, which my research showed would be most tolerant of the clay, the poor drainage, and the periods of dehydration we have up here.
    I hardly noticed the naturalized Pear trees that spire up through the invasive Buckthorns of Dog's Plot, beating the Ash, Hickory, and Oak out of the woods, into the open … because the naturalized trees were thorny and the fruits     mostly small, round, green, bitter,  and hard to distinguish form some kind of crab apple.
   I went through a couple Summers pumping the  well dry  twice a day trying to get the new tree root systems established….before I realized that the "Crab Apples"  were actually Pears, and it occurred to me that  I could take advantage of the evolved and established Pears….by simply grafting cultivated varieties onto them.    So I did.

   I have been colonizing the Pears for five or six years now.  Or eight.

By next Spring anyway, I will have about a hundred and fifty  trees here grafted and growing a dozen varieties of European and Asian Pears…  some trees already twelve or sixteen feet tall, headed for the sky.  I prune out the center and spread the leading limbs.


    The late frosts of last Spring prevented fruiting  and left the trees to hyper-vegetate instead…which means they should fruit extra heavily next  Spring. 
   By  late summer….. if we don't have another double frost and hail disaster….or the lake doesn't rise six-hundred feet,    I should be overwhelmed with pears.
   I'll put some out by the road for you.
         Take a basket of them nd leave five bucks in the cash box. 


Friday, January 4, 2013

Sex, Trees, and the Single Parent

      The one Fig tree in  the Dog's Plot  orchard moves into the house each Winter with its   companion plant Aloe.  I occasionally harvest a few figs from the planter, but of course the Fig and the Aloe don't mate with one another….. and in fact,  Fig trees are peculiar in that each one has  sex only with itself:   the fruits develop from ingrown flowers that never open.  So,  to reproduce or recreate, the Fig tree "frigs" itself, if you will;  and you can't.
        The offspring  of a  figsexual union will be identical to the  bisexual, self-polinating parent:  a clone.
   But most  trees and people  are born of two parents, who together  had  four parents,  who had sixteen…. and so on.  As a result of having so many gene contributors, we may not even resemble either parent, but more like a mixture of the two and their general forebears, or random throwbacks to the originalbears,  including occasional freak characteristics,  creating totally newbears.

  Plant the seed of most any  Pear,  Apple, or other fruit tree…. and nobody knows what you'll get….maybe  even a genetic mutation which enables your  tree to produce apples  that looks like strawberries and  taste like bananas.     
    Yet  the seed of this tree will be just as unpredictable as that from any tree.  You will need a method other than sex to produce another Strawbannana  tree.

    Some trees can clone themselves through various forms of non-sexual reproduction.   Some, like Locust trees, send up sprouts from  traveling roots.  Apple trees will sometimes take root where bent branches touch the ground….especially if you  bury the elbow.   The resulting trees are called "Gypsies".   " Layering"  is what horticulturalists call the process  when done deliberately.  You could try  layering  your Strawbannana.

     Or…  you might  whittle a wedge on one end of a Strawbannana Apple twig, and stick it into a split Apple sapling stump, hoping for the twig and root-stock to fuse……..which may well happen if   you line up the green growing layers,  if you seal the exposed parts, if the critters don't get to it, and if a few more ifs.  "Cleft Grafting",  we call it.


   Romans developed grafting……. or maybe they stole it from the Greeks …. and  perpetuated dozens of Pear mutations by grafting.
    Then, through the dark ages after the fall of the Roman Empire, this practice was carried on  behind cloister walls by the churchmen of Rome.  And now there may be some thought in the Vatican along the lines reproducing  priests by similar means.  Heaven knows,  medical grafters can already  attach a severed finger to the middle of your forehead.

   Be that as it may, during the sixteen hundreds   fruit varieties traveled  as grafted root stock  and rooted cuttings, through the Christian empire  into the Americas.
    French Jesuit missionaries  branching down from Canada  brought their own varieties of Apples, Cherries, Peaches, and Pears to their missions on Cayuga lake and to the Cayuga Village downhill from us at Dog's Plot.
  A hundred years on, when the Cayugas were living in European-style, stick- framed houses,    growing all these foreign fruit varieties, and maybe even  broccoli,  at peace with the English who were at war with the colonists …Washington's men marched through here, burned the village, destroyed the field crops, and cut down the orchards.
   That was the end of  those  Sweet Cherries and Peaches.
        But Apples and Pears - Pears, in particular - sprout well from stumps.