Sunday, March 15, 2015

In Pursuit of the Pawpaw

I’ve never tasted a pawpaw, but I’ve often dreamed of it. I started to be aware of the existence of pawpaws and pawpaw trees about 15 years ago, when I worked at Georgia Wildlife Federation (GWF) near Atlanta. The organization did a lot to promote the use of native plants in home landscapes, and we even sold common pawpaw trees, which are native to a good portion of the country, at one of our fundraising events.

I had to write a little blurb about the common pawpaw (Asimina triloba) for our plant sale catalog, and the research I did while writing got me so excited. The little tree had big, lush, drooping leaves with a tropical look, I read, and delectable, custard-like fruit whose flavor and texture were likened, by more than one writer, to banana cream pie. I began to get a craving.

My dad told me he had eaten pawpaws before, as a little boy in North Carolina. They grew in the woods around his grandfather's farm and he'd go picking them with his wild country cousins.

I asked him if the farm still existed.

No, Dad said, it had been developed into a subdivision. Those wild cousins had become millionaires.

Pawpaws were better known in the old days, I guessed, when there were more farms and woods and fewer subdivisions and people lived closer to the land.


Dad as a child (with Granny) in the 1940s

The pawpaws we sold at GWF were grown by my colleague Terry, who owned 80 acres in the country and was well acquainted with these mysterious plants. In late summer, she and her husband would go pawpaw picking in the woods around GWF’s headquarters. Pawpaws looked kind of like short, fat bananas, she told me. “And when they’re ripe, you can just smell ‘em,” she said. “You can just follow your nose.”

I used to walk the trails in the woods around GWF, sniffing, hunting for pawpaws, but I never found any except a couple of green ones. They ripened, Terry told me, at some magic moment “usually around Labor Day.” Somehow I always missed it.


Georgia Wildlife Federation headquarters circa 2001

I didn’t plant my own pawpaw tree until I moved to Quincy—because my little backyard in Atlanta didn’t have the room. Now I have four pawpaws. They’ve never fruited, not even the oldest ones, which I planted 10 years ago, but the trees themselves are quite decorative.

In early spring, at the same time or just before the leaves uncurl, small six-petaled flowers appear. They’re reddish brown and smell faintly fetid—two qualities that are very attractive to carrion-loving flies and poop-loving beetles, which are the pawpaw’s primary pollinators. I agree with the flies and beetles—the flowers are cute, though I don’t think they look like meat or poop. No, to me they look like little jingle bells arranged up and down the branches of the tree.

The leaves of the common pawpaw are bright green and glossy and can measure up to a foot long. Because of the way they hang from the tree, they put me in mind of the crystal droplets on a chandelier—they just kind of dangle.


New spring leaves

The leaves are even prettier when they’re studded with tiny, bead-like butterfly eggs and striped caterpillars—at least that’s my opinion. Pawpaw hosts the zebra swallowtail. This beautiful butterfly is picky; it will only lay its eggs on plants in the genus Asimina—and throughout much of the zebra swalowtail’s range Asimina triloba is the only Asmina around. (This isn’t true in Florida, which has, I think, eight native pawpaw species.)

Common pawpaws can grow up to 30 feet tall, but 15 to 20 feet is more common. Pawpaws do best when they’re planted in part shade in deep, rich, loamy soil. Though they fruit better with more light, it’s tough to get them established in the open. Young trees, in my experience, need some protection from the sun.

My mom has a pawpaw tree in her yard, and it fruited last summer. She was so excited, she called me at work to tell me the news. “My pawpaw’s got pawpaws!” she said. I love this kind of phone call. A few weeks ago, Mom called me and announced, without even a hello, “Well, the robins have arrived on Avon Circle!” (Avon Circle is the name of her street.)

“Neat,” I replied.

“Got here this morning!” she went on. “Just a huge flock! Well, that’s my news for the day!”

I wished I could drive over to her house and rejoice with her, but I was stuck in my office.


Mom in her yard

It was June of last year when Mom discovered her pawpaws. “Now when can I pick ‘em?” she asked me. “They’re just as green as can be.”

“Um, I’m not sure,” I said. “I know they get kind of yellow and speckled when they’re ripe, kind of like a banana. But I’m not sure how long it will take.”

Mom went to Wisconsin later that month, to visit her brothers and sisters. It was a terrible trip. While she was there her brother David died, and then a few days after she returned home, she had a heart attack. By the time she got out of the hospital, her precious pawpaws had disappeared.

“I guess a raccoon stole them,” I said.

“And I never even got to try one!” Mom lamented.

But we haven’t given up.

Mom called me the other day (at work) to tell me that her pawpaw was blooming. “Just covered in blooms!” she said.

Two of my trees are blooming too.

Come summer, we might be rolling in pawpaws. Who knows?


A couple little flower buds on one of my trees


Flower fully open. The flowers usually hang down bell-like, but I turned this one over so you could see the inside.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Noble Beech

For beauty and wildlife benefits, American beech (Fagus grandifolia) is a tough tree to top. Sure it's slow growing and just a little bit finicky, but this is a tree so noble, stately, and giving that it's well worth the trouble and the wait. It grows up to 100 feet high and wide, lives as long as 400 years, and provides food and shelter for everything from caterpillars to black bears.

Aside from sheer grandeur, American beech's chief ornamental feature is its uncommonly thin, smooth, silver-gray bark, which never roughens or thickens even in old age. This beautiful, unusual bark makes for easy identification. American beech was the first tree I knew as a kid. My sisters and I were lucky enough to have near our neighborhood an old and undisturbed forest of beeches, big enough to get lost in. The massive trunks wrapped in pale gray bark made us think of great stone castles or herds of elephants.

Fall was our favorite time to visit the beech woods. In North Florida, most trees don't really color in autumn, but beeches are the exception, turning bright yellow and amber. The combination of silver trunks and golden leaves made our forest seem enchanted, full of the potential for magic and adventures. As the leaves dropped, the winding paths between the trees (and our little curving creek) became as yellow as the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz.

Fall is definitely American beech's showiest season, but the tree is lovely all year round. Dry, clinging leaves decorate most trees, especially young ones, throughout the winter, and long, cigar-shaped buds appear. When the buds open in spring, the new leaves are a dazzling gold-green and so soft they seem almost liquid. Summer foliage is dark blue-green and provides lavish amounts of cool shade. A beech leaf is a very neat, symmetrical thing. Oval-shaped and paper-thin, it measures about 4 or 5 inches long and has a sharply pointed tip, perfect parallel veins, and saw-toothed edges.


Winter leaves


Spring leaves

The leaves nourish the larvae of the Luna moth. Curled, clinging winter leaves are cozy hiding spots for spiders, and excellent foraging spots for chickadees, titmice, and wrens. American beech is an incredible wildlife tree. Hollows in old beeches provide shelter and nesting spots for owls and bats, and sweet, oily, protein-rich beechnuts are a primary food source for more than 30 species. Beechnut fanciers include wild turkeys, wood ducks, red-bellied and redheaded woodpeckers, common grackles, white-tailed deer, gray squirrels, and chipmunks. In fall, when the pea-sized nuts are in season, they can make up half of a black bear's daily diet.

Beechnuts were also one of the main foods of the now-extinct passenger pigeon, and as late as the 1850s, sky-blackening flocks of these rosy-breasted, blue-winged birds descended on America's beech forests to feed. "It was upon the mast of Beech nuts that the great flocks fed," Donald Culrose Peattie writes in his classic A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America, "and their seeming migration was more exactly a quest, by the million, for the rich harvest of the Beech." Once vast, the beech forests had been largely replaced by farms by the end of the 19th century. "As much by the disappearance of the Beech mast as by mass slaughter," Peattie writes, "were the shining flocks driven to extinction."

American beech is native to eastern North America, from Canada to northern Florida, and is found in moist, well-drained woods. If you're lucky enough to have an American beech on your property, protect it. Trees are easily damaged by drought, poor drainage, and any disturbance to the root zone. American beech is particularly sensitive to the soil compaction and grade changes that often accompany construction projects. If you'd like to establish a beech in your yard, remember that young trees require some protection from the hot summer sun. The ideal soil is loose, rich, evenly moist, and well drained, with plenty of leaf mold. Plant an American beech and do the people and the wildlife of the future a favor.


Sophie and Amanda, in 2008, sitting in the beech tree behind our garage


Another climber in the beech. Mom made this little fellow for me for my birthday.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Friends



I’d like to tell you about a heartwarming friendship between two cats. It began six years ago, when we adopted Carl, our little brown tabby.

Carl was a kitten, maybe three months old at the end of 2008. He showed up one cold December day in the company of our neighbor DeVante, who was about 10 back then. They’d met up in the street somewhere and had spent the day together. Carl was the cutest kitten I’d ever seen—round-headed and upbeat and ridiculously cute. He had such sparkle, such star power, I kept saying he reminded me of Shirley Temple. We all thought he was a girl, and DeVante was calling him Daisy, which was a fine name, I thought, for such an innocent, sunny little being.

When DeVante went home that day, “Daisy” followed him. But when night fell, the kitten came back—alone—and cried at the door. Rob and I weren’t really in the market for a new pet in those days because our beloved cat Pittle was sick and dying and we were trying to nurse her. But we let the kitten in anyway, even though we were too sad to really enjoy any kitten antics.

About a year before that night, we had adopted another stray kitten, a temperamental tortie we named Buntin. Buntin was needy. Buntin was easily offended. She was lonely and had no cat friends because she growled and hissed and charged at everyone she ever met.

Enter Carl. (We soon discovered he was a boy and changed his name.) Carl didn’t care if Buntin growled and hissed. No, it was music to his ears. He was fascinated by her and followed her everywhere. Even though we had four other cats, he chose her for his attentions. He’d roll around and try to look extra cute for her, making bunny paws and puppy eyes. He persisted, until finally he began to get results.

Buntin and Carl became friends around the kitchen table. Buntin would sit on top of the table, and Carl would run around on the bench below and bat at her. Then Buntin would start running and batting too. It was the funnest game, and they would play it every day for hours. Next they started chasing each other around the house, and wrestling in the bathtub. But what Buntin—loving, insecure, lonely Buntin—really wanted to do was lick and groom Carl. She wanted to baby him and take care of him, and she’d feel very betrayed if she was licking him and he tried to start wrestling and having fun. She’d run off in a huff and pout.

But Carl didn’t mind. As Rob would say, “Carl understands that’s just Buntin being Buntin.”

Carl never took offense when Buntin was moody, when she got mad at him for no good reason. When she was jealous. Impatient. When she lashed out.

And so these two cats remain best friends to this day. It’s always the same between them. Buntin will sit and lick Carl and tend to him, shower him with affection, but then somehow she’ll get her feelings hurt and run away, hissing. And Carl will have to win her heart all over again. He’ll have to roll around and make his best bunny paws.

It’s always so mysterious—the beginning of things. Where did Carl come from? And how did he find us just when we needed him most?



Monday, December 15, 2014

Straw



This weekend we finally painted the front bedroom. It went from shabby white to a pleasant pale gold color called "Straw."

The hardest part of painting was getting ready to paint. It took us three hours just to empty out the bedroom, a project we finished at about 9:30 on Friday night. A lot of our furniture is really big and heavyway too heavy to liftso we had to slide it into the living room (our designated storage spot) on towels. Gradually the living room became a crazy jumble of chests, tables, chairs, lamps, picture books, and miscellaneous decorations. In the end it was packed to the gills and we had to leave a bunch of stuff in the hall. We spent the night on the hide-a-bed in the Little House because our usual bed was in pieces and the mattress was lying on its side against the front door.

It's always fun to spend the night in the Little House because it kind of feels like camping . . . or sleeping in a playhouse. (The "Little House" is what we call the old detached kitchen in the backyard.) We made popcorn and watched Parks and Recreation on Netflix. The cats loved the hide-a-bedbecause what's not to love, if you're a cat, about a surprising, instant bed in a room that's usually sadly bereft of cuddle spots?

We painted pretty much all day on Saturday. We listened to Serial while we worked so we wouldn't have to try to make conversation. Rob started up Serial after I said, "So, um, do you like painting?" He really didn't need to do this. I had lots of other great conversation starters in mind. I'd planned to ask him what his favorite part of painting was. Then I was going to ask him about his least favorite. Then I was probably going to start singing.

I'm happy to report that we finished all our painting (including touch-ups with an artist's brush) in a single day. We even got all the furniture back into place on Saturday night. We celebrated with more popcorn and more Parks and Recreation, and then all day on Sunday we stood around admiring our new golden room.





Sunday, November 16, 2014

Josie at 14

Lately our old cat Josie has taken to sitting on the arm of the couch in the Little House and squawking at me, demanding Party Mix cat treats. The noise she makes is very loud, and she puts her whole small body, all her effort, into producing it. She throws her head forward and out comes a sound that cannot be ignored.

“It’s like having a very demanding parrot,” Rob remarked the other day with a smile.

“It is!” I said, and I ran and got the bag of treats, hoping to quiet Josie down.

After I fed Josie her treats (which she nibbled from among the couch cushions), I went and sat at my desk and tried to do some work. Rob was sitting at his desk, working too.

After about 10 minutes, Josie squawked again. I fed her a few more treats, then returned to my desk.

After another five minutes, she squawked one more time.

“So, do you like having a pet parrot?” I asked Rob.

“No,” Rob smiled. “It sucks.”

But we both went over and gave Josie her third round of treats and petted her silky old head. Then Rob tried to get her to settle down. He carried her over to her twin sister, Foxy (or “Foo”), who was sleeping nearby on a blanket. “Now, Josie, why don’t you cuddle with your little Foo sister?” he said. “Foo says there’s a lot of cuddling to do. She needs you to help out, okay?”

And Foxy started licking Josie’s head and kept licking it until Josie fell asleep.


Josie, right, and Foxy in their babyhood


In 2008


In 2010


Today, with new cuddle pal Becky. Please excuse all the cat fur on the blanket.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Vegan Orange Coconut Muffins



Last night I made Vegan Orange Coconut Muffins, flavored with a little orange extract.

Whenever I bake, something always goes wrongmaybe not horribly wrong but at least slightly wrong. Last night was no exception. I ended up spilling pretty much an entire bottle of orange extract on the floor. I had to drive to Winn-Dixie to get another, which was kind of a pain, but I must admit, now that I've safely returned from Winn-Dixie, that the mishap had its upside: The kitchen smelled delicious.

While the muffins were baking, I did some peaceful, easy little chores, like winding the clocks and brushing our very large, ball-shaped cat, Leroy, whom Rob has recently taken to calling "Mr. Hunky."

"Just relax, Mr. Hunky," I was saying.

When the muffins were done, I ate one in the living room while watching an episode of The Rockford Files in my pajamas.

Rob likes to make fun of how lame I am. Last night he got home around 10 and I told him about my evening: "I ate a muffin and watched Rockford with a bunch of cats," I said as we stood in the curiously orangey-smelling kitchen.

Rob grinned and replied, "Now that's partying Leslie-style!"

Vegan Orange Coconut Muffins

Ingredients:

11/2 teaspoons egg replacer
2 tablespoons water
1/4 cup melted vegan butter
1/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup orange juice
1/3 cup almond milk
1 teaspoon orange extract
11/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
11/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup coconut
1/3 cup canned mandarin orange sections, chopped small

Topping:

2 tablespoons melted vegan butter
3 tablespoons sugar

Directions:

In a small bowl, beat together the egg replacer and water until foamy. Add the "egg" to a large bowl. Add the butter and sugar and mix. Add the orange juice and almond milk and mix again.

In another bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.

Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and mix until just blended. Gently fold in the coconut and mandarin oranges.

Pour into a lined muffin tin and bake at 375 degrees F for 20 minutes or until slightly browned on top.

When the muffins have cooled, dip the tops in melted butter and roll in sugar.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

New Mushroom

On Friday Rob asked me to go to Native Nurseries on my lunch hour and get some garlic for planting.

I did, and on the way back to work I texted him, "Got the garlic." I didn't mention that I'd also bought a statue of a giant mushroom.

When I got home that night, I opened my trunk and started unloading my purchases.

Rob came out in the driveway and laughed when he saw the giant mushroom. "'Got the garlic,' eh?" he said.

"Shut up," I said, laughing too.

Then he carried the hundred-pound mushroom through the wild petunias and set it up in the spot I'd picked out beside my favorite bench.





Monday, September 29, 2014

Vegan Coconut Date Walnut Muffins



On Friday night after work, I made muffins. Of course my cats were involved, since I plainly prefer my baking ventures to be as unsanitary as possible.

Buntin, our black and orange tortie, really seems to relish the hustle and bustle of baking--and seeing what she can get away with amid the hurly-burly. She likes sneaking into cupboards when I open them. She also enjoys sneaking into drawers. On Friday night she tunneled into a drawer in the Hoosier cabinet and proceeded to bathe herself among my cookbooks.

Carl, meanwhile, was convinced I was mixing up some cat-food muffins, so he was running around the kitchen making very demanding eye contact and "yelling." He got up on the counter to press his point. He was sure I was holding out on him.

Despite all the goings-on, my muffins turned out really good--sweet and moist and satisfying. Here's the recipe, minus the accidental two cups of cat fur.

Vegan Coconut Date Walnut Muffins

Ingredients:

2 cups flour
11/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup almond milk
1/3 cup canola oil
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1/2 cup shredded coconut
1/2 cup chopped dates
1/2 cup chopped walnuts

Topping:

2 tablespoons vegan butter, melted
3 tablespoons sugar

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line a muffin tin with papers.

In a medium-sized bowl, combine flour, baking soda, and salt.

In a large bowl, combine sugar, almond milk, canola oil, and vinegar. Mix well. Add the flour mixture, stirring until the ingredients are just blended. Fold in the coconut, dates, and walnuts.

Fill the muffin tin and bake about 20 minutes until the muffins are lightly browned on top.

Once the muffins have cooled, dip the tops in melted butter, then dip them in sugar.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Sunflower Stepping Stone

Yesterday on my lunch hour I bought a large Christine Sibley stepping stone shaped like a sunflower. I was very excited. After work I wheeled it in the wheelbarrow through the wild petunias and positioned it in front of my favorite bench. Then I stood back to admire the effect.

Soon Bernie, my stray-cat friend, ambled over and settled down on the bench.

"So, Bernie," I said, "what do you think of the new addition?"

He looked at me, and with that look he made himself quite clear. He would like it much better, his look said, with a nice bowl of cat food in the middle.



Sunday, September 7, 2014

Vegan Meatballs



Today Rob and I made vegan meatballs. We'd been dreaming about them for weeks. Rob wanted to call them "Everything But the Kitchen Sink Meatballs" because they had so many ingredientswalnuts, oats, panko, tofu, nutritional yeast, sautéed mushrooms, and more. We baked them, then deep-fried them for good measure. Since we'd rolled them in cornstarch, they developed a nice golden, crunchy crust in the hot oil.

We ate so many meatballs we had to stretch out on the floor in the sunroom after lunch. The cats walked around on our full stomachs and kneaded them and generally drew unwanted attention to them.

"There's nothing like a cat kneading your stomach when it's full of meatballs," I groaned.

"It's definitely not what you want," Rob agreed.

"I guess we should just get up and do the dishes," I said.

"Yep," Rob sighed. "Cats ruin everything."

Vegan Meatballs

Ingredients:

2 or 3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
5 cloves garlic, minced
8 ounces button mushrooms, finely chopped
1½ cups walnuts, finely chopped
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1½ tablespoons fresh oregano, minced
1½ tablespoons fresh basil, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
½ cup nutritional yeast
½ cup quick-cooking oats
½ cup panko
2 teaspoons liquid smoke
2 packs extra-firm tofu, well drained
Cornstarch for dusting
Oil for frying

Directions:

Sauté the onion and garlic in olive oil until onion is tender. Add the mushrooms and sauté until cooked.

Put the onions, garlic, and mushrooms into a large bowl. Add the walnuts, fennel seeds, oregano, basil, salt, pepper, yeast, oats, panko, and liquid smoke. Break up the tofu with your fingers and add it to the bowl. Stir well to combine all the ingredients.

Use an immersion blender to process the whole mixture until relatively smooth.

Roll the mixture into small balls, about ¾ of an inch in diameter. Roll the balls in cornstarch to coat. Bake on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper at 385 degrees F for 15 minutes.

When the meatballs are done baking, deep fry them in hot oil. Drain on a paper towel.

Serve over whole-wheat spaghetti noodles with marinara sauce.