from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
July 15, 2001
FIG-PICKING TIME AT LAUREL HILL
Our first ripe figs appeared about a week ago but this week they really began coming on. Now each morning I spend over an hour picking figs. I've invented a fig-picking tool consisting of a bamboo pole about 2.5 inches in diameter (I'll tell you about our thickets of Giant Bamboo someday... ) split at one end, with the split parts held open by a small rock. Place a twig-hanging fig inside that split, twist the pole a little, and the twig tumbles into the hollow bamboo.
I almost feel guilty picking figs. They are so sweet, so soft you don't even have to chew them, they are beautiful to look at with their burgundy color and scattered flecks of pure white latex, yet we have done nothing to deserve this bounty other than to let the trees grow where they wish. Usually fig trees don't even require pruning during the course of a year. And if you want more fig trees, you just bend down a lower branch of an older tree, heap dirt over the branch's middle section, let the buried part produce roots during the summer, in the fall cut the branch away from the mother tree, and then you have a new tree with roots, ready to plant.
There's even more to the fig to make a straight-laced fellow feel funny. For one thing, figs are in the same family as the marijuana plant. For another, fig sex is simply outrageous.
For, the thing we call a fig really is not a standard fruit. Technically, a fruit is the item into which the female part of a flower, the pistil, develops when its ovules are fertilized by the male sex germ in pollen. The pistil with ovules mature into a fruit with seeds. This is not at all the way figs develop.
At http://www.backyardnature.net/fruits.htm#f at my nature-study site I've placed a picture of a cut-open Laurel Hill fig. At that picture you'll see that a fig is a fleshy, hollow receptacle bearing flowers on its INTERIOR surface. When we eat a fig, we are eating a fleshy, vegetative receptacle enclosing hundreds of immature flowers.
In the wild, mainly in the tropics, there are about 2,000 fig species, and often a particular wasp species pollinates a particular wild fig species. Our domesticated fig trees have lost their ability to reproduce sexually. Flowers inside the domestic fig do not mature, do not get pollinated and do not produce viable seeds. Our edible-fig trees can no longer survive as a species without people producing rooted woody cuttings.
However, for as long as there are people like myself filled with admiration for this wonderful plant, those rooted woody cuttings will be made. I am rooting some right now and this fall I will set them out. I just wonder that every house in Mississippi is not surrounded by fig trees.
On the gravel road between here and the plantation headquarters Kudzu vines encroach from embankments on both sides of the road and if cars didn't constantly run over them the vines would soon smoother the entire road beneath a sea of greenery. Each day on this road I smell the sweet odor of grape juice, for the Kudzu is flowering, and that's the way purple Kudzu flowers smell. Kudzu is Pueraria lobata, a member of the Bean Family.
A while back I read a newspaper article saying that Kudzu vines arise from a starchy underground root "big as a small car," and that this root could be eaten.
The next day I visited our Kudzu with my shovel. I found that the vines may root in several spots, and none of the roots I followed deep into the ground ever showed any promise of connecting with a tuber "big as a small car." After a couple of hours I gave up, but maybe someday a Newsletter reader finding himself or herself bulldozing a Kudzu zone will have better luck, and if that is the case, please let me know what you see.
The book "Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America" by M.L. Fernald says that the root usually forks into several branches, has a tough outer coat, but is fleshy within. Moreover it says that the fleshy portion of each of the main branches can be from four to five feet long and as thick as a man's arm. I find this much more believable than it's being a car-size tuber, but even still this would amount to considerable eating. Well, the Kudzu vine must be doing something with all the carbohydrate it is photosynthesizing with those acres of leaves held flat against the sun.
Fernald describes how to prepare Kudzu root segments: "... they are cleaned, cut in pieces, crushed, and the starch washed out and allowed to settle to the bottom of the tub. The starch is then purified by repeated washings and when dried is a fine, pure white article, which is much esteemed for food."
My family in Kentucky writes of a terrible outbreak of Japanese Beetles in their area, saying that their gardens and orchards are simply disappearing. In late July of last year I traveled by bus from New York to Kentucky and in many places in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Kentucky from the bus window I saw enormous damage, unbelievable damage, in certain places. Today I think I saw a Japanese Beetle here, though it is not supposed to be here yet. My eyes were blurry from sweat and my glasses were fogged as the bug zipped by, so I am hoping I was mistaken.
The map at http://www.pueblo.gsa.gov/cic_text/housing/japanese-beetle/jbmap.gif shows that Japanese Beetles are not supposed to be in thispart of the US... yet. They were introduced into the US in the Northeast, so during recent years their distribution has been expanding outward, toward our area. Apparently there is nothing to keep them from eventually reaching here. They occur in several south-Alabama counties so they can obviously survive our heat.
During last year's visit to Kentucky the beetles were eating up my grandmother's garden so she asked a neighbor to set up his "bug trap" next to her garden. The trap consisted of a bag on a pole. Above the bag was a small, vertically held yellow board. Apparently the yellow board was saturated with a Japanese-Beetle sex hormone, a pheromone, which attracted any Japanese Beetle in the area -- and only Japanese Beetles.
"Attract" is too tame a word. The moment the apparatus was set up, every few seconds a Japanese Beetle would divebomb out of nowhere, thud against the yellow board, fall into the bag, and be unable to climb from the bag because of the bag's slick interior surface. In five minutes the bag was filled with live, leg-wiggling Japanese Beetles, which could then be disposed of.
I have seldom seem such a powerful demonstration of the sexual attraction, and the plague of beetles was more impressive than even my current plague of mosquitoes. Woe to us when the Japanese Beetles do reach our gardens and orchards. Apparently our magnolias, dogwoods and oaks are not bothered much, but our apple trees, crape myrtles and roses are listed among the ten most favored Japanese Beetle foods.
Newsletter subscribers in the Natchez area should learn to identify these metallic bluish-green creatures with coppery wing covers. They are pictured at http://www.pueblo.gsa.gov/cic_text/housing/japanese-beetle/jbeetle.html
The recent rains have let pools filled not only with mosquito wiggletails but also many pools are just working with tadpoles, or polywogs, which are of course immature frogs. Frogs lay eggs in water, the eggs hatch into tadpoles, then finally the tadpoles metamorphose into frogs.
The metamorphosis is something worth watching, even if you think you know all about it. The most interesting thing is to watch the younger tadpoles, which initially look like tiny catfish, grow legs as they absorb their tails, and at the same time changes from being vegetarians with very long gut, slender guts, to carnivorous frogs with very short, thick guts.
This Wednesday I found a tadpole of the Southern Leopard Frog, I think, with its back legs just beginning to appear. I put it into a jar of water, brought it home, placed it on my scanner, and scanned him! The results were pretty good, so if you want to see a tadpole which still has its tail, but also has tiny legs sprouting, go to my nature-study site's frog page at http://www.backyardnature.net/frogs.htm#t
Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,