Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Little Green Fruit

 The unexpected and unexplained occurs every day in my garden. Some of these surprises are baffling - how could a Yucca torreyi which has lived in the front for more than 10 years suddenly die? Others are whimsical - a flowering stalk of spider lily (Lycoris radiata) jumped up outside the study window and neither of us recall planting it. And some are a gift, bounteous and undeserved, like this year’s tomatillo crop.

    Tomatillo is a member of the massive genus, Physalis, most of which are known as ground cherry. There are a number of species native to the Sonoran desert and all desert peoples before us ate them either cooked or raw. The ones we find in markets and eat with such relish, are most often indicated as Physalis ixocarpa but the taxonomy is nightmarish, and far from reliable.
    However, what is clear is that some form of tomatillo has been eaten in southern and central Mexico by both the Aztec and the Maya before them. In the language of the Aztec, Nahuatl, everything that vaguely looked like tomatoes was known as tomate with some kind of modifier attached to declare which was which. Hence, our tomato was called jitomate and our tomatillo was simply tomate or miltomate. These names are still used in Mexico although in some regions it is also called tomate verde. Once the tomato got to Spain someone got lazy and dropped the modifiers, turned it more Spanishy, and we have the word tomato. How the small green fruit of Physalis became christened tomatillo (little tomato) is still murky.
    Whatever its origins or name, it is a curious little fruit,enclosed in an inflated husk which it then grows to fill up and ultimately to break through. If you fail to find one in time and it rots away, it leaves a husk that looks like a fragile net on the ground.
    I first noticed them as mystery plants germinating in the vegetable bed in May. Lots of things find their way into these beds, and I always leave them until they grow up enough or flower to find out who they are. At first I thought they might be basil seedlings, and by the time it was obvious what they were there they numbered in the dozens.
    As the plants continued to grow over the summer I became more and more attached to them. Few things do well in the summer and often I grow crops in the vegetable garden just to keep the soil alive, usually relying on sweet potatoes and black-eyed peas. I left them alone and they sprawled out to smother the two beds in which they grew, falling over the sides, climbing up leftover trellis’.
    In early September they began to flower exuberantly and fruit began to set. The plants repeated this cycle almost weekly until we were able to go out daily and come back with a handful or two of the sweetly tart fruit. They are still going, showing no sign of slowing down.
    I can only imagine that they arose from the compost pile. I planted tomatillo seed many times over the years and while they grew extravagantly I got no flowers or fruit from these efforts and quit a number of years ago. Now I am hooked, I want this crop every year so I have been leaving some of the fruit that got too ripe, or fell off, right where it lands in hope that there will another banner year, without my intervention, for this delectable, little green fruit.

In The Kitchen.
Tomatillo makes wonderful fresh salsa by simply blanching it or roasting it lightly, then chopping it with onion and hot peppers. It is irreplaceable in posole, and a green sauce made of it and other fresh peppers, onions, garlic and oregano makes delicious enchiladas, quesadillas or stew. There are green moles based on this fruit as well. The fruit freeze well, as does the sauce, so when the bounty is gone you can still enjoy it.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Two for the Fall

Signs of fall are subtle in the desert, longer, golden shadows, days that start later and end sooner. Most years, and this one is no exception, temperature tells us nothing - it is still summer by that gauge. Yet, in all this confusion there a number of good plant clues and none are more welcome than two of my fall flowering bulbs - oxblood lily and naked lady.

I got my first  oxblood lily (Rhodophiala bifida) years ago when  Mark Dimmitt of Tucson gave me a generous handful from his garden. Knowing little about them or their cultural desires, I planted them all over the place. In rocky areas, in good soil, in the shade, in the sun. Everyone of them has thrived and multiplied.

Rhodophiala bifida-  the oxblood lily
A South American relative of our familiar garden amaryllis, oxblood lily is one of those odd bulbs that sends up a flowering stalk before the leaves emerge. Stalks pop up quickly, literally overnight, and announce September as regularly as the turning of a calendar page. The flowers are deep, clear red with an acute tip that makes them look like stars. I can’t get over how reliable they are, and how little they require from me. While they have shown that they will grown in almost any condition of sun or shade, those with the most sun are the first to flower.

Plants always surprise me, and none more so than the flowering of the naked lady. A couple of weeks ago I was out of town, and Gary reported that a hefty stalk was pushing up beneath the apartment window. Baffled I could not remember planting any bulb there, save the long established oxblood lilies, and we noodled about what it could be. I have a terrible habit of acquiring bulbs, either by purchase or as gifts, and popping them in the ground without the benefit of tags. I pledge every time to change my ways, and often I have, but this one clearly got away from me.
Amaryllis belladonna - the naked lady

The day before I was to return, it opened its first flowers and it was obviously a naked lady (Amaryllis belladonna). I was excited and crossed my fingers that it would still be in flower when I got back. I should never have worried.

Naked lady sends up its foot tall flowering stalk producing anywhere from 2 to a dozen flowers on its terminal cluster. It is a show that develops slowly, opening one or two at a time, giving you a long time to savor and enjoy the bloom. Ours set 10 flowers and took 12 days to finish. Mine is the common pink, the color of a baby’s fingernail, although darker ones as well white are available.

I have had a planting of this bulb over by the jacaranda tree since 1997 and they have never even hinted at flowering. In its homeland of South Africa it grows among rocks and other dry places, so I imagined it to be at home in that location. Clearly I was wrong, and the one with a bit more water, and slightly more enriched soil, has show me how to grow this beauty.

The history of naked lady in European and Caribbean gardens is long and poorly documented. It is clear that it was brought to England in the early 18th century and that it was Linnaeus who gave it its name in 1753 although there is scholarly dispute about whether he was looking at the right plant when he did. The Portuguese probably brought it originally to the rest of the world’s attention and it appears to have followed the early trail of the slave trade, Africa to the Caribbean, to England, Portugal and Spain and back to Africa. It has been a common garden plant in all these places for centuries, but unfortunately no one thought to keep track of when and where it arrived.

So while reddened leaves are rare, and nippy nights are months away, I can still call up a fall feeling every time I go out in the garden and enjoy my bounty of fall-flowering bulbs.