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Here at Ferrebeekeeper we have delved into giant ancient trees, yet we left out one of the most astonishing and iconic trees of all–the African baobab (Adansonia digitate).  Full grown baobabs are among the most massive flowering plants in the world, and, like the yews, the sequoias, and the great oaks, they can live for an enormously long time—up to 2500 years according to carbon dating.   The African baobabs live on the dry, hot savannas of sub-Saharan Africa.  The trees grow up to 25 m (85 feet) in height, but it is their mass which makes them astonishing: trunks with a diameter of 14 m (46 feet) are not unknown.  Shaped like jugs or squat bottles, these trunks help the trees store precious water during droughts.  Below the ground, the trees are even more astonishing.  The roots grow wider and deeper than the branches which is why enormous baobabs can be found in seemingly parched scrublands.  Their roots seek out secret water basins and find hidden underground rivulets.

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Baobabs are also known as “dead rat trees” because of the appearance of their fruit. Admittedly this does not make the fruit sound super appealing, yet it is edible and nutritious and a market is springing up for baobab fruit smoothies.  In addition to providing fruit for humans, the leaves and bark of the tree is important to wildlife on the great savannas.

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Although the trees are practically synonymous with the landscape, humans know less about them than one might suspect.  Although the trees are fertilized by pollen born by fruit bats and bush babies, the full process of fertilization is not entirely understood.  Indeed, botanists are increasingly unsure whether   Adansonia digitate is actually just one species.  The other baobab trees are largely native to Madagascar (although there is one Australian species, and a species on the Arabian Peninsula) so it seems like the genus originated on the microcontinent and then spread to the great supercontinent.

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As you might imagine, the baobab features heavily in innumerable myths, folktales, and religions of Africa.  It is the magic fairy tree of that land.  My personal favorite story comes from the Zambezi basin, where tribes tell of how the proud baobabs grew so tall and beautiful that they began to rival the gods themselves.  In wrath the gods inverted the trees so that the fat roots now grow into the sky, but the trees were still splendid, till evil spirits put a curse on the strange white flowers.  Now anyone who picks these fantastic blossoms is subject to terrible bad luck…more specifically a lion will kill and eat that person!  That should keep the blossoms safe.

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But, of course, in the Anthropocene world, such made-up curses don’t keep the trees safe at all.  There is one true curse on the great baobabs.  Across Africa they are dying.  Trees which were saplings during the fall of the Roman Empire (the western half!) are swiftly succumbing to an unknown scourge.  To quote a tragic article in the Atlantic, “Of the 13 oldest known baobabs in the world, four have completely died in the last dozen years, and another five are on the way, having lost their oldest stems.” The full truth of what is felling the giants is subject to debate, but botanists and arborists agree that the rapid warming of the world is the most likely culprit.  Trees which lived for two millennia in arid wastelands in the heat of equatorial Africa are suddenly dying from high temperatures.  Some of these trees have been landmarks for countless generations of people.  It is as though a mountain died and withered up

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I am not sure how to properly quantify something so troubling, but the truly ancient past offers some upsetting clues about what might soon become of the Baobabs’ home (which is humankind’s first home too).  Set aside your tears for the great trees and join me, tomorrow.  We are going to take another trip back to the beginning of the Eocene, the “dawn age” which calls to me again and again. In that sweltering summer world of 56 million years ago, there are clues about what will be the fate of baobab trees and of their home ecosystem. The Eocene was a world without ice.  The arctic oceans were warm year-round. Rainforests filled with unknown marsupials covered Antarctica.  I hope you will boldly join me in going back to that bygone age, but I am worried you will not like what we find, and I am worried we are not going to like what we find in the future either.

Baobab Toilet Caprivi

God DAMMIT, humankind, can you not even let me end on a chilling note without making it stupid?

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I’m sorry that my posts were a bit exiguous the last couple of weeks.  A whole host of summer events showed up all at once on the docket (and summer is the slowest season for blog readership anyway), but I didn’t mean to write so infrequently.  To get back to form, let’s present a classic topic which reappears again and again in these pages—snake deities.   Ferrebeekeeper has presented some of the great snake deities from throughout world history: Nüwa, the benevolent creator goddess of China; Apep, the awesome universe snake god of darkness from Ancient Egypt; the Rainbow Serpent who is the central figure from the Australian aborigines’ dreamtime; Angitia;  Ningishzida; and even Lucifer, the adversary from the Bible, who tempted humankind to eat of the forbidden fruit.

Today we visit Fiji, where the greatest god of the islands is Degei.  Degei is the creator of the islands, the father (of sorts) to humankind, and the all-knowing judge of the underworld (he throws most souls into a great lake where they gradually sink into a different realm, but he selects a few choice heroes to live forever in Buroto Paradise. He combines the attributes of a great many of the other snake gods we have visited into a single mighty entity.

Degei’s story is of great interest, not just because of its beauty, power, and mystery, but also because of its substantial similarity to other other world creation myths (just read it and see if you don’t lend new credence to some of the strange things that brother Carl had to say about the universality of mythical narratives).

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In the beginning, existence was nothing but endless ocean and gloaming.  Two entities dwelled within this dawn world: the female hawk Turukawa who flew continuously above the ocean, and the great serpent Degei who dwelled upon the surface.

But eventually Turukawa needed to nest.  Degei pushed up islands so that her two eggs would have a safe place for incubation and he heated the eggs with his body and protected them with a father’s love (I suppose you will have to ask questions about paternity to Degei himself since my sources are strangely mute about this key detail).  When the eggs hatched, two tiny humans emerged: the first man and the first woman.

Degei created a beautiful garden for these children, planting fruit trees and flowers all around.  He housed the two in a vesi tree, but he kept the boy separate from the girl.  As they grew up he taught them the secrets of nature and of the ocean and the sky.  They had abundant fruit from the banana trees, but he hid two sacred plants from them: the dalo (taro) and the yam.  These fruits of the gods were forbidden to the children, for they cannot be eaten without fire (and fire was a special secret of the gods).

However, eventually the children grew into adulthood and met each other and fell in love.  To provide for their livelihood they needed more than fruit and flowers, and so they petitioned Degei for the secrets of fire and agriculture.  Since they were now adults, he could not in good conscience keep these secrets from them any longer, and so the great serpent taught the children about the forbidden fruits (yams and taro) and how to safely cook them with the flame he presented to humankind.  In some respects, this giant reptile almost seems more enlightened about raising children than certain angry creators we could name, but, um, who is to judge right from wrong?

Legend says that Degei still lives in a cave near the summit of the mountain Uluda.  Since his descendants have grown so numerous and prosperous, he does not take the same interest in them which he did in the first days.  Mostly he eats and sleeps away the long eons of dotage. Yet his power remains awesome.  When he grows agitated the world shakes and tsunamis and deluges sweep Fiji.

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After yesterday’s soul-searching, let’s take a moment to rest and renew our spirits…with a beautiful bright orange-gold dove from Fiji. This is the orange fruit dove (Ptilinopus victor) also known as the flame dove—a lovely small short-tailed dove which lives in the paradisiacal rainforests of Fiji where it eats an omnivorous diet of fruit, larvae, insects, and small arthropods and mollusks. The male birds (pictured here) have bright orange body feathers and shiny olive green heads (AND blue green legs, skin. and beaks). The females are olive colored and don’t call so much attention to themselves.
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I wonder what it would be like if, through some bizarre fluke, rock pigeons (aka pigeons) only lived on a few small islands in Fiji and the orange fruit dove was found in cities everywhere. Would we be oohing and ahing at the rock pigeons subtle grays with iridescent sheen and dismissively wave off the flame pigeons gorgeous orange as vulgar?
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In America, the last Friday of April is traditionally Arbor Day, a day for planting and conserving trees. I probably should have written about the cherry tree today…but the blossoms have already largely fallen off so I am going to choose a different blossoming tree to concentrate on—the common hawthorn Crataegus monogyna. The Hawthorn is another of the most beautiful flowering trees of the northern hemisphere. Like cherry trees, hawthorns are members of the rose family. They are small to medium sized trees of great beauty which have thorns and grey-brown bark with orange fissures. Hawthorns bear red pome fruit which is said to taste like overripe apples (the fruit of North American species of Hawthorns was a major food source for North America peoples before familiar Eurasian fruit arrived). The common hawthorn tree was originally native to Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia.
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The Hawthorn is known for beautiful glistening blossoms which appear in May or June and resemble five petaled roses (although the vase-shaped tree is lovely year-round. More prosaically, the trees have been used as hedges because of their dense growth, hard wood, and thorns.
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The tree features prominently in the folklore of Europe and western Asia. The Greeks esteemed it enormously—it was the symbol of hope and blossoming boughs were carried in wedding processions. In Northern Europe, the Hawthorn was identified with ancient gods. For a long time, even after Europe was Christianized, hawthorn trees were reckoned to be found near entrances to the otherworld—the realm of elves, fairies, and magical folk. It was allegedly bad luck to kill—or even cut a hawthorn tree, and the misfortunes of Delorean motor company are said to have started when they cut down a grove to build their factory.
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In Christian mythology, the crown of thorns of Jesus was putatively made from hawthorn wood. Despite this, Christians, apparently stayed fond of Hawthorn and there were medieval legends connecting it with various Saints and miracles. Hawthorn is certainly a miraculously beautiful tree. I would totally plant one for Arbor Day…if I had a sapling…or a place to plant it.
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A persimmon is a berry which grows on a persimmon tree, a group of species within the larger group Diospyros.  The Diospyros trees are part of the majestic ebony family, and indeed persimmon trees are likewise noted for their hard, dense, elegant wood. The Diospyros are widespread trees, and native species of persimmon can be found in East Asia, Central Asia, South Asia, the Philippines, and North America.

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Persimmon berries (or fruit, as people call them) are an excellent source of dietary fiber, manganese, and beta-carotene (which people are always banging on about, but which I think is overrated).  They do not otherwise contain significant nutrients…except perhaps sugars (once they have been sufficiently ripened or bletted).  Unripe persimmons are astringent and somewhat indigestible. Indeed, green persimmons are noted for sometimes causing bezoars in humans who eat lots of green persimmons–the unripened flesh polymerizes into a woody ball which traps other food materials.  These horrifying lumps can necessitate surgery (although apparently coca-cola dissolves them).

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Persimmon trees are rugged and grow fast.  Not only do their blossoms emerge after their leaves, which protects the buds from frost, they can also survive in polluted or unfavorable situations.  My grandfather had a garden and a fruit orchard next to the Chesapeake Bay.  The East Coast is slowly (or maybe not-so-slowly) receding into the ocean and the persimmons lived shockingly close to the saltwater until Hurricane Fran knocked them down in 1996.  Throwing a football around while running across the slippery rotting fruit is my foremost persimmon memories, although I have also drunk the Korean spicy punch called sujeonggwa (and I found it delightful).  Maybe I should try making a persimmon pie!

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Additionally there is a beautiful autumnal orange color named after persimmon. It is a mid-tone orange with hints of red, almost the same hue as senior republicans, but slightly darker with woody brown notes. I like to write about seasonally appropriate colors, and I can hardly think of a hue more suited to early November (unless it is some sort of russet or woodland gray).

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RoseCrownedFruitDove.jpgAugust is probably my favorite month! To start it out on a jaunty note, I wanted to find the most colorful pigeon out of all the many Columbidae.  Now, as it turns out, there are a lot of beautiful tropical doves with tutti-fruity plumage, but one special candidate seemed like the clear winner. Allow me to present the rose-crowned fruit dove (Ptilinopus regina), a green dove with an orange belly, saffron eyes, a white-gray head and thorax, and a beautiful magenta crown (edged with yellow).  Wow!

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The rose-crowned fruit dove is a gentle fructivore which lives in lowland rainforests of northeast Australia, and various tropical islands of southern Indonesia.   The female lays a single white egg in a nest hidden in the dense canopy and both parents look after it.  Nestlings are solid green and do not develop the brilliant splashes of color until they reach adulthood.

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Rose-crowned fruit dove (Ptilinopus regina) from arovingiwillgo.wordpress.com (photo by Joy)

I sort of hoped to tell some amazing anecdote about this lovely animal, but I could not find any. Apparently the bird’s brilliant plumage seamlessly blends into the vine and flower filled jungles where it lives. People rarely see it at all and are most familiar with the bird from its cries or from the noise it makes when it fumbles and drops a delicious fig.   Just based on looks alone, though, it was still worth writing about!

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When scanning over the (dreadful and upsetting) news this morning, a wacky and funny story jumped out at me from amidst all of the grim happenings: fruit merchants in Japan auctioned off some grapes for a record high price!  A bunch of approximately 30 “Ruby Roman” grapes sold for 1.1 million yen (which is equal to approximately $11,000.00).  Even considering today’s high food prices and Japan’s astringent import rules (aka crooked tariffs), $365.00 per grape is an appallingly high price!  What is going on? And what are “Ruby Roman” grapes?

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Paying astronomically high prices for high-status foods is sort of a Japanese food tradition—like hotdog contests or giant pumpkin weighing in America. Merchants or wealthy patrons buy up ceremonial first fish or crops in order to gain prestige and whip up public attention (from all the way across the ocean in this case). The buyer of these particular grapes, Takamaru Konishi, plans on showing the expensive fruit in his shop before parceling them out to special customers and patrons.

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Ruby Roman grapes are a special Japanese variety of red grape which each grow to the size of ping pong balls. Viticulturists began developing this new variety of grapes in 1992 by hybridizing and selecting certain strains of Fujiminori grapes.   In 2008 the new giant red grapes hit shops…provided the fruit met the hilariously strict Japanese agricultural guidelines for what constitutes “Ruby Roman.”  To quote Wikipedia:

Every grape is checked strictly to guarantee its quality, with certification seals placed on those thus selected. The Ruby Roman has strict rules for selling; each grape must be over 20g and over 18% sugar. In addition, a special “premium class” exists which requires the grape to be over 30g and where the entire fruit bunch must weigh at least 700g. In 2010, only six grapes qualified for premium status while in 2011, no grapes made the cut.

Wow! Maybe these grapes are worth $365.00 each! Or maybe this is another goofy publicity stunt for lazy reporters.  If so, count me in!

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Oregon-grape (Mahonia aquifolium) by Healthy Home Gardening

Boy, I am ready for spring…but it hasn’t quite sprung yet here in Brooklyn. So far the only things blooming here are hellebores, snowdrops, and… the Oregon-grape? This sounds like some improbable status-item fruit from Whole Foods, but it is actually not a grape at all, instead it Mahonia aquifolium a member of the barberry family.   The plant takes the form of a shrub or tiny tree 1–2 m (3 feet –6 feet) tall which is covered in holly-like evergreen leaves. The plant is indigenous to the Pacific coast of North America where it can be found from southern Alaska to Northern California. It is exceedingly hardy and is one of the first plants to bloom in spring when it is covered with lovely little yellow flowers which look like ranunculuses (for good reason, since barberry plants are close relative of the buttercups and ranunculuses).

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The yellow flowers swiftly turn into little purple black fruits with a glaucous blush. These berries were a big part of the diet of Native Americans from the Pacific Northwest (although I am a bit surprised it is not poisonous like most of the buttercups). I guess I’ll keep my eyes open for these around the neighborhood (they have been widely planted as ornamentals), but I have more hope for seeing crocuses…if any survive the squirrels. Be of good cheer! Spring is coming!

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The fruit of the Oregon-grape

Strange Ocean World (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, colored pencil on paper)

Strange Ocean World (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, colored pencil on paper)

Well…it was another day that got away.  What with work and dinner and the grind, I failed to write about beaked whales.  Don’t worry: those magnificent diving experts cannot escape our pen forever, but, in the interim, we must fall back on my daily doodle book (which Ferrebeekeeper cognoscenti know is a little moleskine sketch book that I carry around and draw in during my spare time).  I have a big sarcophagus-shaped pencil tin too—which is full of colored pencils and markers to bring my drawings to life.  The first sketch however (above) only required one “Blue Denim” colored pencil.  It’s a little unclear, but I think it is a picture of the future oceans filled with bathyspheres, synthetic ocean life (to replace the fish we are recklessly killing off), and ships driven by fanciful propulsion.  Synthetic beings and post-humans fly through the weird clouds of this strange ocean world.  In fact, maybe it’s not Earth at all, but somewhere else entirely—an ocean world of oddly familiar alien marvels.

City with Glowing Crystal (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, ink on paper)

City with Glowing Crystal (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, ink on paper)

Next is another troubling pastiche of nature and technology.  A happy monster ambles by a shambling city while a gambling demon tosses dice at a magic crystal.  Reptiles and weeds fill up the foreground as strange elongated opossums creep in from the sides.  It’s just like now!  This might as well be a CNN photo about the 2016 election.  This image may need to be colored in.  What do you think?

Succulent Fruit (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, Colored Pencil and Ink on paper)

Succulent Fruit (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, Colored Pencil and Ink on paper)

Finally, thanks to enthusiastic comments from my favorite readers, I included more fruit.  One of my tasks at my new day job is overseeing the fruit supplies for a big office full of desk jockeys who spend all day looking at important documents.  Because of ancient precedent, almost all of the fruit is bananas, and my colleagues beg piteously for different fruit.  I have provided their wants…in this fantasy drawing which shows a succulent world of juices, seeds, and glowing tutti-fruit color. It could also be that there is a statement here about our world of agriculture, selective breeding, transgenic alteration, and over-consumption…or possibly it is just a fun doodle I made at lunchtime.  As always, thanks for looking at my little artworks. I treasure everybody’s comments (though I realize I have been slower than usual to respond).  Let’s keep enjoying the rest of summer. I’ll keep drawing (and the post about beaked whales will appear soon). Cheers!

Gros Michel Bananas

Gros Michel Bananas

A half a century ago, bananas were more delicious. They were creamier with a more delectable tropical fruit taste. When they ripened, they stayed ripe longer instead of swiftly turning to black slime. Since they lasted on the shelf when ripe it was possible to sell them ripe–as opposed to today’s bananas which must be purchased all green and hard and nasty. I realize that this description makes it sound like I have fallen prey to golden age syndrome—wherein a bygone time becomes a misremembered quasi-mythical standard against which today is unfavorably compared (a well-known problem for certain political parties and demographics)—yet I am not embellishing. The bananas of yore were better because they were different. If you recall the earlier banana post, you will remember that there are numerous strange and magnificent varieties of bananas in Southeast Asia—delicious miniature bananas, red bananas, purple bananas…all sorts of fruit unknown to us. For long ages, across many lives of men, farmers hybridized wild species of bananas and selectively bred the different strains into different varieties called cultivars. The most delicious and salable cultivar was “Gros Michel” (Fat Michael) which I described above. “Gros Michel” was so ideal for farming (and so tasty) that it became pretty much the only banana cultivated. Vast plantations around the world produced only “Gros Michel.” It grew on large 7 meter tall trees (21 feet) which produced abundantly.

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I even have a family story of how my paternal grandparents got together during World War II. He finally expressed his interest in her by giving her a banana—which were rare and precious during the war. Grandma was suitably impressed and made a somewhat ribald poetic metaphor concerning the banana’s shape–which left grandpa with no doubts about her feelings…which is to say I am considerably in debt to “Gros Michel”, despite the fact that I have never tasted one.

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So what happened to Gros Michel? Is there by chance a terrifying horror story which provides us with a useful moral lesson about our tastes, our habits, and the fragile nature of the foundations of civilization?

Well, as it happens there is such a story!

Banana Tree with Panama Disease

Banana Tree with Panama Disease

In the 1950s, a fungus Fusarium oxysporum attacked the Gros Michel bananas. It was known as “Panama Disease” and it wiped out entire plantations of fruit in Africa and South America. The blight spread with horrible speed through the great monoculture farms. All Gros Michel bananas were clones, so the contagion spread unchecked. There were years where there were almost no bananas in Europe, Africa, and the Americas: whole empires turned to ashes and rot. To save their livelihood banana growers burned their groves and moved to a new dwarf banana “the Cavendish” which was unsatisfying—but which resisted the terrible killing fungus. Gros Michel disappeared from the commercial world…although there are tantalizing rumors that it exists still in the ancestral homeland of bananas—Southeast Asia. It has even been said that Chinese billionaires import luxurious Gros Michel fruits and have lavish banana parties where they eat magnificent tasting bananas and laugh at the feeble little green bananas of the west.

dsc_1801banana_shopWhatever the truth of these tales, what is certain is that the banana growers outside of Asia immediately fell back into their bad habit of monoculture. The Cavendish is just as vulnerable to blight as its predecessor. Indeed many monoculture crops (crops like wheat, rice, and potatoes) are potentially vulnerable to unexpected disease because of the perils of overreliance on certain favorable strains. It is a somewhat sobering thought for people who eat!

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