Posts Tagged ‘Euell Gibbons’

Pleistocene Persimmons (Diospyros virginiana)

December 19, 2012

Every year, I gather persimmons from a tree growing on a narrow strip of land between an expressway and a mall parking lot.  I know enough to wait until early December before I harvest the fruit.  Though a few varieties do ripen as early as mid-September, most don’t bear ripe fruit until winter.  Many people unfairly dismiss persimmons because they’ve eaten unripe ones.  The tannic acid in an unripe persimmon gives a person the feeling of having a mouth full of cotton.  Persimmons look ripe to the unpracticed eye for several months before they are actually good to eat.  They must be soft and mushy to touch before one knows the sugar has replaced all the tannic acid.  The ripening process has nothing to do with frost, but rather length of exposure to sunlight. They need so many hours of sunlight to ripen that they usually aren’t ready to eat until after the first frost.

Shroom 023

I picked about 3 pounds.  I picked these on December 1st.  The fruit on the tree growing next to this one was still not ripe.  I had another photo I wanted to use, but decided not to post it because I didn’t realize my checkbook was in the background.  I didn’t think it was a good idea to have my account number on the internet.

Persimmons are very sweet and to me taste like perfumed dates.  I simply pop them in my mouth and spit out the seeds.  They are one of the most nutritious fruits in the world.  The food value of this fruit attracts many species of mammals including fox, possum, raccoon, and bear.

Possum eating persimmon.  They don’t swallow the seed and are not good dispersers of the fruit.

Raccoon reaching for persimmon.  They do swallow the seeds and are good dispersers for the fruit.

Possums are famous for loving persimmons, but they are not effective dispersers of the seed.  One study proved that possums rarely swallow the seed.  In this experiment possums were given 63 persimmons and only 1 seed was ingested.  Raccoons, foxes, and bears are better dispersers of the fruit because they do swallow the seeds and scatter them in their scats.  Another study found that persimmons were a favorite food of raccoons.  Raccoons chose persimmons over corn, crayfish, eggs, earthworms and 5 other items.

Persimmons are considered only slightly anachronistic, unlike pawpaws, honey locust, and osage orange–3 plants that were entirely dependent on extinct megafauna for dispersal. A mastodon likely gobbled down persimmons by the hundreds and spread them all over the landscape.  Persimmons have been found in mastodon dung excavated from the Aucilla River in Florida.  The tree can resprout vegetatively, so they could have withstood heavy proboscidean pruning.  However, persimmons are still  common  and not local in distribution like other more anachronistic species.  In abandoned fields in Georgia persimmon is almost as common loblolly pine, oak, and sweetgum–the pioneer trees of early forest succession here.

Persimmons are in the ebony family which includes approximately 200 species.  Most are tropical.  The American species and the closely related Asian species grow in temperate zones.  The both descend from a common ancestor that lived on both continents during the Miocene.  The only other common American species is the black sapote (Diospyros digyna) which grows in Mexico and Central America.  (A rare third species occurs in Puerto Rico.)

A large species of African persimmon is entirely dependent upon elephants for dispersal.  The fruit is also eaten by chimpanzees and gorillas, but the seeds are too large for them to swallow.  Only elephants are big enough to swallow the seeds of this species.

Elephants are the sole disperser of a large species of African persimmon.

Persimmon Bread

Here’s Euell Gibbons’ recipe for persimmon bread.  It is excellent and I make it every year.

Beat 1 and 1/2 sticks of softened butter with 1 cup of sugar.  Add 1 cup of persimmon pulp and 2 beaten eggs, and 1/2 cup of chopped nuts.  Add 2 cups of bread flour and 1 teaspoon of baking powder.  No liquid is required.  Spoon the batter in a well-greased loaf pan and bake for 1 hour at 325 degrees.

It is tedious to separate the seeds from the pulp.  It takes about 40 wild persimmons to equal 1 cup of pulp.  I don’t even bother removing the skins, and a few seeds always end up in the bread.  It would be convenient to find a female persimmon tree that was left unfertilized.  Unfertilized female persimmon trees bear seedless persimmons.  I know of a persimmon tree that bears seedless persimmons, but it grows on an island in Woodbridge Lake in Evans, Georgia and is only accessible via canoe.  The lake must isolate it from pollination.  Grocery store persimmons come from female trees that are commercially grown in isolation from male trees.  They are all seedless, but I can’t bring myself to pay money for a fruit I can obtain for free.

Reference:

Barlow, Connie

“The Ghosts of Evolution: Nonsensical Fruit, Missing Partners, and Other Ecological Anachronisms”

Basic Books 2000

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Blueberry and Bumblebee

May 21, 2012

I have 4 cultivated blueberry bushes.  They usually flower in March, produce fruit in June, and offer lovely red foilage in  fall.  This year, winter ended 2 weeks earlier than normal, and Saturday (May 19th) I harvested my first blueberries.  They were plump from a recent drought-breaking rain.  I made my first batch of blueberry pancakes the following morning.  My bushes give me all the berries I need for pancakes, muffins, and desserts for about a month.

My blueberry bushes flower in February and March.  The bees swarm to them every year.  Without these pollinators there would be no fruit.

Note the bees.  The most common species pollinating the flowers are the southeastern blueberry bees and bumblebees.  The former looks similar to the latter but is smaller.

Two bushes.  Two varieties.  One of the four bushes (not pictured) is stunted and doesn’t produce much yet.

Good plump berries by May 18th.

Blueberry flowers attract several kinds of bees well adapted to late winter/early spring weather conditions.  Because these species of bees are covered with hair, they are able to withstand colder temperatures than most other insects and are among the first arthropods to emerge in early spring.  The black coloring also helps increase their body heat.  The southeastern blueberry bees, bumblebees, and honeybees pollinate over 96% of the blueberry crop in southeastern North America.  The southeastern blueberry bee (Hapropodia laboriosa) is by far the most common type pollinating my bushes.  They look like a small bumblebee and are a solitary species.  The female digs a long burrow in sandy soil and broods her nest in it.  Their lifespan matches the length of time blueberry bushes flower–about 3 weeks.  They are completely dependent upon blueberry bushes, unlike bumblebees (Bombus sp.) which pollinate a much greater variety of plants.  Bumblebees live in colonies of from 200-2000 individuals.  They also nest in burrows where the overwintering queen becomes the sole survivor when hard weather hits.  Both of these native bees are not aggressive.  I’ve never been stung by either one.  One would have to roughly handle one of these species or invade a nest to get stung.

Horticulturalists cultivated high bush blueberries, creating hundreds of varieties, but low bush blueberries only grow in the wild.  Nevertheless, there are such extensive stands of low bush blueberries in Maine that they’re gathered wild and can be found in the frozen food section of many supermarkets.  Low bush blueberries grow wild in my neighborhood, including my front yard.  These ripen in late July/early August but are of disappointing quality compared to my cultivated high bush blueberries.  Euell Gibbons claimed wild blueberries work better in muffins than cultivated ones, but the variety that grows in my neck of the woods is hard and bittersweet.  My wife and daughter love cultivated berries but declined to eat the wild ones after trying them.  Eight species of blueberries are native to the piedmont region of the southeast: sparkleberry (Vaccinium arboreum), black high bush blueberry (V. atroccum), high bush blueberry (V. corynborum), Elliott’s blueberry (V. elliotti), southern low blueberry (V. pallidum), deerberry (V. stamineum), slender blueberry (V. tenellum), and early low blueberry (V. vaccillum).

Blueberries generally grow in colonies and prefer sandy acidic soil.  They thrive in sunny open areas with little to no tree canopy.  They can tolerate a few pine trees which don’t shade them.  They’re another fire adapted plant–underground runners help them resprout following ground fires.  When Euell Gibbons went hunting for blueberries, he’d visit the office of a National Forest ranger and ask him to point out on a map where the most recent burns had taken place.  Native Americans set fire to the woods nearly every year to foster habitat for berries, though this was done for several other reasons as well such as improving habitat for game, eliminating insect and snake refuges, and increasing visibility to avoid being ambushed by other Indians.

Undoubtedly, blueberries were a common component of southern Pleistocene landscapes.  Dynamic factors–sudden climate changes, unchecked wild fires, and megafauna foraging–created highly diverse environments including the open spaces blueberries require.  Pleistocene-aged heath pollen in measurable amounts occurred in Nodoroc, a mud volcano near Winder, Georgia (the central part of the state).  The pollen dated to ~30,000 BP, a brief interstadial immediately preceding the Last Glacial Maximum.  The pollen record here suggests an environment dominated by pine, oak, and grass; though hickory, spruce, and fir were common, while maple, beech, chestnut, and birch were present in this diverse landscape. The presence of high amounts of ragweed, an early successional species, is evidence of an environment in constant flux.  Pine pollen and macrofossils at Nodoroc suggest a mixture of southern species (shortleaf) and northern species (jack, red, and white).  In Maine wild blueberries grow in large barrens and are associated with the northern species of pine mentioned above.  One caveat–the heath family also includes common non-blueberry species such as azalea, mountain laurel, and fetterbush, so it’s likely they contributed to the heath pollen.  Scientists can’t differentiate to the species level when examining heath family pollen.

Pleistocene environments in Georgia may have included vast blueberry barrens such as those occurring in Maine today, especially with large flocks of passenger pigeons spreading the seeds that eventually found ideal habitat.  William Bartram rode his horse through miles of what he referred to as “strawberry plains” in north Georgia and North Carolina.  This environment–common just 200 years ago–is now completely extinct. Strawberries require sunny conditions, just like blueberries.  In the extensive wilderness of the Pleistocene perhaps blueberry barrens and strawberry plains covered miles of territory.

Maine blueberry barren.  This photo must have been taken during fall when the leaves turn red.  The owners of this land burn it often to faciliate the growth of wild blueberries–an uncultivated cash crop. Did Pleistocene Georgia have extensive blueberry barrens such as this?  Or did they just grow in small colonies wherever a fire burned a small section of forest?