Years ago I planted a twig-like cutting from my Paw Paw’s fig tree, nurtured it back to health after it was trampled by a delivery man, poured bags of rabbit manure on it, placed stones in strategic locations to keep the roots warm in the winter, mounded straw on it when the temperature dropped into the single digits, pruned, coaxed, watered, mulched, and finally found myself with a solidly-established, thriving tree that produces hundreds if not thousands of fruit each year. Visions of preserves and stores of dried fruit danced through my head. Enter the catbirds, who gorge on unripe figs, park their progeny in the branches so junior is never more than a millimeter from a snack, and fearlessly defend the fruit-filled territory with a zeal one usually finds only in a convert. Then there are the squirrels, who are thrilled to find such riches within their grasp and fight loudly with one another over each fig, inevitably dropping them on the ground only to pluck another rather than retrieve what was so carelessly spilled. There is also the nightly visit from the possum. And a couple of raccoons. Not to forget the passersby who seem to lack a clear understanding of personal property and the tragedy of the commons. So maybe I’ll get a handful each season. Thus goes the story of the suburban fruit tree.
Each time we have lost a landscape tree, I replaced it with a fruit tree. A Seckel pear lost it’s first and only crop to the Rodentia after which it succumbed to fire blight, but the greengage I planted at the same time has survived. It has produced loads of fruit for me over the years, and I have tasted probably three plums from that tree. As soon as the slightest blush appears on the first plum, the tree is denuded. The carefully-tended high-bush blueberries are pilfered annually by chipmunks, and the birds took all the raspberries for so many years that I pulled out the plants. No sense in wasting cultivable real estate.
And then there is the persimmon tree. When a hurricane took out our big maple, I looked for something more suitable for life underneath some hanging cables and wires. After a good deal of reading, I settled on a Jiro variety which is monoecious, tops out at 20 feet in height, tolerates cold snaps, turns a glorious shade of scarlet in the fall, and produces notably delicious fruit. The green fruit lack astringency and begin to attract attention when hot weather hits during the summers. It’s difficult to blame the squirrels for wanting something cool and refreshing to eat. They don’t get to live in the air conditioned comfort of a house when it’s in the high 90s. I’ve tried to distract them by placing water throughout the yard, and changing it frequently, but to no avail.
One year I managed to salvage a few fruit with the strategic placement of a rubber snake nestled among the leaves. It was meant to startle the kleptomaniacal contractor who had torn a fruit off the plant and left a wound in the wood doing so, just in case he returned, but it had the unintended consequence of repelling the squirrels from that single branch. It wasn’t long before they were on to me, and a number of snakes did nothing but attract a little interest which quickly transitioned to indifference. I did find, however, that fruit located at the very ends of the most slender branches remained on the tree. Perhaps it was too precarious a position for the little acrobats.
This season’s harvest consisted of nine fruit out of a few hundred. A few were eaten fresh, both firm and then soft-ripe, with the stem pulled out and a grapefruit spoon in hand. The ones that got really soft were puréed for spiced persimmon “bread,” which makes a lovely fall and winter breakfast. This one is Martha Rose Shulman’s recipe from the New York Times, and it is lovely. I’ve got two containers of the pulp in the freezer, waiting for the next baking binge.
Next year I’ll do some more reading and try again to discourage everyone who wants to eat what I have planted and tended so carefully. I will, however, still enjoy watching the catbirds raise their families, the chipmunks peering into our dining room from the branches of the blueberry bushes, and the squirrels performing feats of gymnastics around little limbs on the persimmon, trying to reach a succulent prize. I just wouldn’t mind if they learned to share.