Natural events: orchard edition, September 2017

Featured this month:

  • Wild harvest
  • September weather
  • Signs of drought stress
  • Seed dispersal of persimmons and pawpaws
  • Pawpaw seed saving

Wild fruits and nuts: Our orchard harvest in September was pretty much restricted to Shinko Asian Pears, and that was a small harvest due to damage from late frosts (but they were delicious). However, it’s been a banner year for seed production by wild trees and shrubs, and some of those are human edible. Wild pawpaws (upper left) and persimmons (upper right)  ripened in September. Sumac berries (lower left) can be good for making a fresh beverage with lemonade-like qualities or a fermented wine. They’re best harvested at the end of a dry spell, but this year was so dry that the berries just shriveled and we decided we weren’t sure they were of good enough quality to go through the work of wine making. Hickory trees were loaded with nuts (lower right) that dropped in September. The husks come off easily; a good whack with a hammer cracks them and putting the nut in a cotton bag beforehand helps to contain all the pieces. Picking out the nutmeat is tedious, but it works well to have a bowl of them on the table and eat a few now and then as a snack or a post-meal nibble. They are tasty, with a hint of black walnut flavor, but not as strong.

September precipitation: September was dry. We had measurable rain on two days for a grand total of 1/2 inch. (We were also quite a bit drier than the official weather station at the Columbia airport, which received 1.92 inches, though that, too, was concentrated in just two days.) Given that July and August also had below-normal precipitation, the landscape was pretty crispy and desperate-looking by the end of the month. The Drought Monitor listed us only as “Abnormally Dry” at the end of the month, but on the ground it sure felt and looked like a full-fledged drought.

September temperature: We had more days in the 90s in September (6 total) than we did in August (4 total). The warm spell at the end of the month wasn’t that remarkable on its own, but combined with the lack of precipitation, the effects on vegetation were quite apparent.

Signs of drought stress: We ran quite a bit of irrigation to keep the perennials in the orchard happy, but elsewhere on the landscape the drought impacts were quite evident. The under-story vegetation on a north-facing, wooded slope was literally wilting and lying flat on the ground (left). Leaves on various trees started to turn brown, shrivel, and fall off prematurely. The photo at right shows an oak that’s doing okay, but the hickories turned brown well ahead of schedule. Many of our maples also had leaves that went straight from green to brown. So much for memorable fall color this year.

Seed dispersal of persimmons and pawpaws: This photo shows why we didn’t get to eat very many wild persimmons or pawpaws: The critters got there first. We’re not sure what mammals dropped this scat (maybe raccoon or fox, anyone know?), but they were clearly chowing down on wild fruit. Both photos show persimmon seed, and the one on the right shows pawpaw seed as well.

The presence of pawpaw seed in the scat is interesting, as some researchers and writers have suggested that the mammals currently inhabiting our forests are ineffective at dispersing pawpaw seed. For example, this article states that “No living North American animal can swallow pawpaw seeds whole.” This argument is based on the concept of evolutionary anachronism, essentially the idea that now-mostly-extinct mammalian mega-fauna played an important role in seed dispersal for a variety of plants. In theory, plant mechanisms adapted to rely on such animals don’t really function anymore in the current ecosystem, reducing the plants’ viability and population distribution. This is a really fascinating concept, and there’s a pretty strong case for it with regards to some plants (such as Osage Orange).

However, we’re pretty convinced that modern mammals can effectively spread pawpaw seed; certainly the photographic evidence above demonstrates that something is eating and passing whole pawpaw seeds. We also have an example of a pawpaw tree that we’re relatively certain grew from seed in the past decade, as it showed up on the berm of our bulldozed sewage lagoon, not a place that it could have suckered from an established plant.

Eating pawpaws and saving seeds: The handful of ripe wild pawpaws that we found turned out to be the fruit highlight of the month for us. They fell off the tree when we touched them, meaning they were perfectly ripe. We cut them open and ate them with a spoon, savoring the tropical-fruit-reminiscent flesh, and setting the seeds aside as we went. Though we planted some purchased grafted pawpaws this spring, we’d like to expand the pawpaw planting and do some of our grafting down the road (which is part of the reason we bought some non-patented grafted pawpaws). Saving and planting seed gives us the chance to have our own root stock from local genetics.

I’ve never saved or successfully started pawpaw seeds, but based on reading and instinct, the basic process involves mimicry of what happened in those piles of scat. The seeds that pass through a digestive system go through a fermentation process that removes the outer membrane from the seeds before they’re deposited in a pile that will stay cool and moist through the winter. In lieu of a digestive system, I soaked the seeds for a few hours until the membrane loosened up enough to remove it (though I didn’t do a full fermentation). Once reasonably clean (but not dry), I put the seeds in a plastic bag with a barely damp paper towel, and this went into the refrigerator. I’ll give them a few months in the refrigerator, monitoring to make sure they don’t mold, then attempt germination in early spring.

2 thoughts on “Natural events: orchard edition, September 2017

  1. Great Post! I would say it depends on how large that scat is but racoon and deer certainly eat pawpaws, and I think coyotes and bear would like them as well. I do not see how these animals could avoid every seed. It is hard enough for people to avoid every seed! Especially on wild pawpaws, which sometimes seem like they are mostly seeds.

    A tip for storing pawpaw seeds. Paper towels are extremely prone to mold, even when monitored. A really great media for storing pawpaw seed and persimmon seed actually, is peat moss. In terms of sustainability, it only takes a miniscule amount of peat moss for a few seeds so a bale of peat moss like they sell in stores would last someone many many years if they are only storing a few seeds a year. The peat moss should be moistened and then squeezed dry before using it to store the seeds