Friday, December 21, 2012

Buoyed by Citrus in a Sunny Climate

Photo of oranges being washed, by Cybrgrl, Flickr Creative Commons
            It all began when my friend said, “Feel free to have the satsumas in the bowl on top of the fridge. They’re from the tree out back.”

            I was alert at once. Yard fruit!

            And tropical yard fruit, at that.

            This was on a trip to see family in Houston, 21 miles from the Texas Gulf Coast. It was early December. The outside temperature was 60F. 

           Sounds like good weather for citrus, I know. But I'm always excited to see tropical fruits, because they weren't common here when I was a kid.

   There’s been a real uptick in tropical-fruit growing in recent years, thanks to education from some of the nursery owners and the local organization Urban Harvest, which offers classes on which fruits thrive in a climate that is mostly warm but experiences freezes.
Photo of satsuma tree by Shoshanah, Flickr Creative Commons

            I rushed to get the bowl, gazing at its bumpy orange contents. Real satsumas! They weren't your standard clementines or "sweeties" from a mesh bag, with 25 identical siblings. These were the real thing, and I could peel them for breakfast.

I proceeded to do so. The peels fell away easily, though they were thicker than the ones from the store. Inside were fresh, orange-hued slices, each separate. That was in the usual way, of course – but these satsumas were remarkable to me because they’d grown in the yard.  
 Photo of satsuma by Patrick Feller, Flickr Creative Commons.
It’s such a remarkable thing, to those of us who didn’t grow up in California or Florida, these citrus fruits wrapped up in tidy, peelable packages.

I'd needed a lift, and this trip was giving it to me. Back in Seattle, I’d fallen behind on blogging, which I sometimes do when the weather turns dark and perpetually rainy in November and early December. It no longer seemed like good foraging weather – I hadn’t really made it out for mushrooms, but I’d heard the fall crop was thin because of extra sun and little rain in early fall – and I’d used up all my rosehips and sumac berries.

Ideally, I would have found local plants to buoy myself, and I did do some research on seaweed and kelp collections. But when I contacted someone who offers classes on seaweed collection, she confirmed that most of the collection happens in summer.

On the hiking trail, too, things seemed a little discouraging. One hike had been so wet that our rain gear failed and we ended up losing heat at a high elevation, although we fortunately warmed on the way down. On another hike, we set out too late and ended up hiking in the dark when the sun set at 4:10 p.m. because of the higher elevation. We -- and a bunch of other hikers caught in the same situation of early dark -- had to hike carefully and slowly over rocky, descending trail that we could barely see with our cellphone lights.

In both cases, I resolved to be more careful. Still, I needed a vacation. So here I was in sunny Texas, with oranges in the back yard. It was a pretty nice solution, I had to say. 

And there was more to discover. Later that day, I sauntered into the yard to see the vegetation. I noticed banana trees, which I’d seen in Houston before. But on some of the big-fronded trees were groups of oblong green rounds, almost like large grenades. Could it be? I was pretty sure they were papayas.

And indeed, nurseries and Urban Harvest confirm that papayas can be grown in the area.

Photo of papaya tree by Adrian8_8, Flickr Creative Commons

The papaya trees were on the other side of the neighbor’s fence, so I had to leave them alone. They were green, though, so I was less tempted -- just impressed, really.

I felt fired up. Fruit a-plenty around here!

Later I went running and noticed that the neighbors' yard across the street had a small, tropical tree laden with orange fruits. It might have been a satsuma tree, too. I wasn't able to check, because no neighbors were home. Again, though, I was thrilled to see how much fruit was all around.

A day later, my friend and I went off to look at outsider art and metal sculptures around town. At a yard crammed with distinctive metal sculptures near the railroad tracks, I saw a tall sculpture of a green monster that can be turned on, so that it moves its arms and legs and makes a loud growling noise. It's racing through the urban jungle, is the idea, and it was exciting.
I looked all around at sculptures, each of which was an idea of its creator. That said, I couldn’t help noticing that in the next yard, separated from us by many feet of metal sculpture and a tall fence, was a tall tree hung heavily with yellow-orange globular fruits.

            I'd never seen a tree with quite so much large, colorful fruit.

            After we finished looking at the art yard, I pointed out the tree to my friend. He was excited and said we’d head past on our way out of the neighborhood. We hoped that from the next block, we’d be able to see it better.

           We drove around the block, craning our necks for the bright yellow fruits that were imprinted on our minds, but were disappointed not to see them on this side of the block.
            So, this blog entry ends on a questioning note: What was the tree? I think it was a grapefruit tree, based on what I've since read about fruits trees recommended for Houston growth.
 Photo of grapefruit tree by Conalil, Flickr Creative Commons.
            It was, I think, a whole tall tree simply chockablock with yellow-orange grapefruit!

            What a thing -- the fruit, less the tree -- to have around for breakfast, eh?

            If you live in a warm climate, local organizations like Urban Harvest in Houston offer great classes on choosing and growing tropical fruit trees in your yard. The range of plants possible is broad, from avocados to starfruit to guavas. Articles like this one are full of great tips.

            In future visits, I look forward to having more homegrown tropical fruits, and finding out what grows on some of those trees that were mysteries on this visit!
 Photo of grapefruit tree by antmoose, Flickr Creative Commons

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