Monday, September 26, 2011

Do pears grow well in Florida? Ap(pear)ently, they do!

Old-fashioned Southern pear trees produce heavily even when neglected for years.

Simply Living
September 26, 2011

My son came back from a walk the other day with about a dozen old-fashioned Florida pears that he had picked in a nearby abandoned orchard. Although the tree had received no care for years, that didn't seem to affect its production. Dozens of hard, amber-skinned fruit still hung from its scrawny limbs.

Southern pear trees are like that. These small to medium-sized deciduous trees tend to resist disease, tolerate extended droughts and produce prodigious amounts of tan- to brown-skinned, white-flesh fruit. Of the many old-fashioned varieties, Orient, Kieffer and pineapple pears stand out as staples of many longstanding Florida homesteads.

Because I wasn't sure which variety Tim had picked, I contacted Brandy Cowley-Gilbert, owner of Just Fruits & Exotics nursery in the Florida Panhandle town of Crawfordville. After I described the pear's size, shape and texture, Cowley-Gilbert said my son had probably gathered a bunch of Orient pears.

"The Orients have been around for a long time," she said. "They are a round, large pear that ripens in the fall and grows well in Central Florida."

Cowley-Gilbert said pears, persimmons, blackberries, muscadine grapes and pomegranates are fruits that will survive despite years of neglect.

"These are long-lasting fruits that can still produce 40 to 50 years after they were planted," she said.

The people who planted the pears that Tim picked probably didn't grow them as a table fruit. The softball-sized Orient and other "sand pears" (the name for a class of Chinese pears traditionally grown in the South) are a cooking fruit used in baking and canning and to make chutney, preserves and even wine.

The main thing I do with them — and what I did with the cache Tim gave me — is to make a simple pear sauce.

After washing and slicing the pears into small chunks (skin and all), I put them into a pot with about two inches of water, cover and cook over high heat. When they begin to boil, I turn the flame down and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the chunks slip off a fork when pierced. At that point, I turn off the heat and let the soft fruit cool a bit before pureeing in a food processor and adding a sprinkling of ginger, cinnamon and a little sweetener.

I like to use plant-based, no-calorie stevia as a sweetener, but at times I've used maple syrup, agave and honey. I've also even eaten the pear sauce plain, allowing the fruit's natural sugars to do the job.

The day after I made the pear sauce (devouring most of it when still warm!), I realized that I'd overlooked one of the pears. The forgotten pear was too small to make into sauce by itself or to use in baking, so I decided to cut off wedges as if it were an apple to eat fresh with a chunk of sharp cheddar cheese.

Even though most people use the sand pear for cooking, I found its fresh flavor satisfying. The pear was crisp and slightly sweet and made a perfect "pairing" with the cheese. Orient pears resemble the round Asian pears sold in the produce department of grocery stores, but the flesh's texture is somewhat harder.

It's too bad that a fruit that used to be a mainstay of most Florida homesteads and diets has become unfamiliar. Most Floridians are probably unaware that certain varieties of old-fashioned pear trees not only grow but thrive in a climate best known for its citrus.

"Pears are truly one of the easiest and trouble-free fruits the homeowner can grow," Cowley-Gilbert said.

If the quick disappearance of my pear sauce is any indication, they are also one of the tastiest.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Little-known persimmons are worth discovering

Two plump tanenashi persimmons, similar in shape and taste to commercially grown hachiya persimmons, ripen on the tree as temperatures cool.

Simply Living
September 17, 2011

Ralph just came in from picking persimmons. One of our trees is loaded with fruit, and my husband aims to pluck the ripe fruit before the bugs, raccoons, possum and fox discover them.

For a long time, eating ripe persimmons has been one of our autumn rituals, but it wasn't always that way. Like most Americans, I knew nothing about persimmons. I didn't grow up having a bowl of them on my breakfast table like bananas. When I felt like a snack, I didn't bite into them like apples, nor did I bake with them or make them into puddings. Persimmons did not have a place in my life until the 1990s, shortly after we moved to Lake County.

In those days, the bright-colored orange fruit native to China held great promise as a replacement crop for frost-killed citrus groves. Throughout Florida's central and northern regions, farmers planted extensive orchards of the small, deciduous trees in the hope that the fruit, which is a dietary mainstay of many Asian countries, would catch on with U.S. consumers.

We planted our first trees around that time, and while interest in persimmons shifted slightly, it never caught on to the extent growers hoped it would. These days, persimmons are more familiar to American shoppers than they were 20 years ago, but to many, they remain a mystery. That's too bad because these shiny-skinned edibles are well worth sampling for their sweet flavor and high nutritional value.

Low in calories and with zero fat, persimmons are a great source of dietary fiber as well as being high sources of vitamins A and C. Unfortunately, discovering the fruit's many attributes involves actually tasting one, and to do that, consumers have to learn when a persimmon fruit is ripe enough to eat.

There are hundreds of different types of persimmons but only two varieties — hachiya and fuyu — are commercially available. Of the two, hachiya is most common in grocery stores. That's regrettable because unlike fuyu, which is edible when its flesh is either soft or hard, hachiya is palatable only when its flesh has attained a jellylike consistency. One bite into an unripe hachiya stops most people in their tracks, preventing them from ever trying a persimmon again.

Both fuyu and hachiya persimmons are orange fruits that ripen from September through December. The skin on tomato-shaped fuyus is thick, similar in texture to that of an apple. I like to eat them like apples, one bite at a time, until I get to the throwaway stem. My husband approaches the fruit differently. He cuts off the tough outer skin and slices the flesh into wedges. I like his method, and if I weren't so lazy, I'd prepare them that way too.

Hachiya persimmons are also orange-colored but their skin is thinner than the fuyu and their shape is acorn-like instead of round. They are also an astringent fruit, while fuyu persimmons have no astringency at all.

When ripe, hachiya flesh has the consistency of a ripe plum. If you bite into the fruit before then, the inside of your mouth will feel like it is full of fuzz, the way it does when you take a bite of an unripe banana.

Because I'm an impatient eater, I often approach a hachiya like a plum. I pick it up and bite into it, skin and all. It's a sloppy affair, with slippery flesh and dripping juices threatening to drop onto clothes. Ralph's technique is much neater and more civilized. He cuts off the stem end and uses a spoon to scoop out the sweet-flavored, soft insides.

The tree that Ralph just finished picking is a tanenashi persimmon, similar to the commercially grown hachiya. Assuming he can stay ahead of the creepy crawlers and wildlife nibblers, that one tree should provide us with enough fruit to eat fresh, freeze and share with family.

But you don't need your own tree to discover the wonders of this little-appreciated-in-America fruit. Next time you're at your grocery, buy one and take it home. If it is a fuyu persimmon, go ahead and give it a try, but if it is a hachiya variety, exercise patience. Wait until the flesh is plum-soft before taking a bite. Once you've tried it, don't be surprised if eating persimmons becomes one of your autumn rituals as well.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Love plants? Love mysteries? You'll love this series!

Susan Wittig Albert has written more than 100 books, including the popular China Bayles mystery series.

Simply Living
September 12, 2011

I love a good novel, especially one with interesting characters, a captivating story line and the ability to teach me something new about topics I hold dear. That's why I'm a fan of the plant-themed China Bayles Mystery Series by Texas Hill Country author Susan Wittig Albert.

In each of the series' 18 novels, main character China Bayles (big-city lawyer turned small-town herb-shop owner) solves murders through a combination of botanical know-how, deductive skills and legal reasoning. Each novel expands my plant knowledge while providing a welcome and entertaining literary escape.

I don't like slasher stories, psychological thrillers or books that frighten or give me nightmares. Neither do I abide by unnecessarily sad or uncertain endings. None of that happens in a China Bayles mystery. When I open the pages to one of Albert's books, I am guaranteed a good time. I enter a world I can relate to — a small town inhabited by a quirky but lovable cast of characters who struggle to overcome common, everyday problems. Albert's stories end happily, a feature I covet in both books and movies.

Although each of the series' 18 mysteries is an independent read, the stories always begin in the fictional Texas Hill Country town of Pecan Springs, where the lives of the main characters progress from one book to the next. That makes each installment like a visit with old friends. With a turn of the page, I "catch up" with a cast of imaginary people who have come to feel like they're almost real.

Front and center is the proprietor of the Thyme and Season Herb Shop, China Bayles, and Bayles' best friend, business partner and mystery-solving sidekick Ruby Wilcox. She's a New Age maven with a propensity for right-brain thinking that contrasts nicely with Bayles' more left-brained, practical approach.

Bayles' love interest, Mike McQuaid, is a former detective who, following a work-related injury, trades his badge for stints as a private investigator and university educator. Other recurring characters include McQuaid's son, Wilcox's daughter, various local business owners and relatives and friends of the main characters. The entire package is sprinkled with humor and includes satisfyingly unpredictable endings.

Albert published her first China Bayles novel, "Thyme of Death," in 1992. It must have been around that time when I chanced upon it on the shelves of my local library. I quickly devoured that book and have been gobbling up new installments ever since. Fortunately, Albert has written more than 100 titles under her own name and various pen names. With the exception of 2002, there has been a new China Bayles novel annually. The most recent release, "Holly Blues," came out in 2010. I'm never left hungry for long.

In addition to each story's underlying botanical theme, every chapter is anchored by herbal quotes, proverbs, plant-related recipes and gardening folklore. In "Indigo Dying" (2003), I read about the different cloth-coloring properties and histories of various plants, along with recipes for herb quiche and frijoles de olla (beans in a pot).

In "Rosemary Remembered" (1995), the folk saying that headed Chapter 12 — "To learn humility, one must weed the Thymes" — struck me as particularly relevant. At the end of each novel, a list of pertinent resources provides motivated readers with ways to continue learning about plants mentioned in the stories.

One of the few things I enjoy more than getting lost in a book is learning more about one of my favorite subjects. With Albert's help, I'm able to broaden my botanical knowledge in a memorably entertaining way.

Monday, September 5, 2011

It's hard to love a plant like Spanish needle

Spanish needle's small, daisylike flower (left) turns into a sphere of barbed seeds that latch on to anything they touch.

Simply Living
September 5, 2011

I'm not a fan of Spanish needle (Bidens alba), but I feel like I should be because this white, flowering relative of asters has many of the attributes I look for in a plant.

It attracts wildlife (especially bees and butterflies), has both edible and medicinal properties and is a Florida native. However, it also produces an abundance of hard-to-remove, needlelike black seeds that are frustratingly difficult to remove from any article of clothing that happens to brush against them.

I've been battling Spanish needle on our property for 20 years, and I haven't won yet. Right now, I'm looking out my office window at an explosion of these leggy weeds that have sprung up in what is supposed to be my ginger garden.

I'm trying to like them. I really am. But two decades of disdain is difficult to overcome.

I'm not alone in my feelings. Ever since people have been in contact with Spanish needle, they have made up names to express their impression of a plant so intent on propagating itself through contact that its seeds adhere like barbs to anything they touch. Among its many monikers are beggartick, hairy beggar's tick, shepherd's needle and devil's sticktight.

Spanish needle is a perennial wildflower with a deep taproot and small, daisylike blooms. It likes hot weather, it's drought- resistant and it's not particular about soil conditions. It isn't fussy about location, either, growing well in both sun and shade. Although its white, yellow-centered flowers are tiny (about an inch across), each 3-foot-tall plant has multiple blooms.

When flowering, it is innocuous and even beneficial. Some people might even say the flowers are pretty. I wouldn't be among them, but flying insects must think so. The plant attracts numerous butterflies, bees, wasps and dragonflies and is the larval host for the emerald moth, dainty sulphur and Florida duskywing butterflies.

After flowers fade and seeds develop, the Spanish needle earns its negative nicknames. A single plant can produce more than 1,000 two-toothed seeds, each with the annoying ability to cling tightly to hair, fur or cloth. Its hitchhiking habit serves the plant well, enabling it to do what plants need to do: spread out and reproduce. I have to admit it is extremely successful at those goals.

On one level, I appreciate Spanish needle. It is a hardy, resilient, determined plant. It has managed to survive — even thrive at times — in places it is not wanted. Those very traits, however, also make me dislike it. I can't tell you how many times I've struggled to dislodge the barbed seeds from my husband's white socks or from the hem of any skirt I've been foolish enough to wear when I've walked in the woods.

There's a strong movement afoot to embrace native plants. Spanish needle may be a Florida native that bees and butterflies adore, but that doesn't mean I have to like it or want it in my yard. Neither should I feel guilt each time I fantasize about ripping out every last specimen (as if that were even possible!).

No, some plants' negative features simply overshadow their attributes. That's how it is for me and Spanish needle. Sometimes, the best weeds are the ones growing elsewhere