Friday, August 24, 2012

Cerises de Terre

What a miracle it is…the seed. It’s a tiny packet with genetic information, growth hormones, raincoat, snow boots, and lunch all together in something smaller than my pinkie. Incredible! Additionally, these tiny seeds that are produced by our favorite food plants, as well as by our most hated weed rivals, can last for decades under the right conditions. We laud this in our foods and despise it in our non-foods, but regardless, the fact remains that evolution has developed a pretty neat little method for delaying the reproduction of plants until such time as the ideal growth conditions present themselves. The specific adaptations are numerous and brilliant (though evolution is neither genius nor dunce, simply survivalist). They are, however, more complex and numerous that the scope of this particular post. 

I’m curious to know how long it took and just what the reaction looked like, the day humans discovered that a planted seed would yield a similar plant the following year. From that discovery, it wouldn’t have taken long to learn that a dried seed, whether with the fruit still attached or not, could be kept and planted not just the following spring, but for many years after.

As time progressed, we humans unwittingly began to direct evolution in ways that yielded larger crops of better tasting fruit. The survivability of the plant and the seed became of secondary importance with this new intermediate species (humans) protecting both from the ravages of predatory herbivores. With this new freedom of expression available, the plants, encouraged by the humans, evolved different and interesting forms, colors, flavors, and uses. Plant breeding had taken off.

But it wasn’t until recently that plant breeding became something more than a hobby. While certain tulip bulbs sold for thousands of dollars in the 16th century, the corn we raise and many other food staples were not trademarked or owned by anyone. Every farmer saved pumpkin seeds because it was easy and reduced the cost of starting up in the spring. But now the art of seed saving has recently fallen by the wayside, and is even becoming a legal issue for those who choose to keep it alive. If Monsanto developed the seed that you bought and planted, then they own the reproduction rights of the seed produced by those plants as well. This means that seed saving of certain plants is a violation of ownership laws. 

Despite these laws and loopholes, I’m saving seed. Thus far I have harvested and dried bee balm, coriander, nasturtium, johnny jump up, and spinach. I placed the seed pods in a protected area in the storage room with plenty of air flow. As the seeds dry and fall from their housing I collect them and place them in envelopes that are labeled. These then go in the freezer for next spring. Maybe I won’t have to buy those seeds next spring after all.

Anyone who sees the struggles in the world these days understands that self-reliance is a very important step toward protecting yourself and your family against potential shortages. I was given a gift the other day. It was the gift of future food. While on a very different mission, I bumped into an old friend who had the most delicious Cerises de Terre. Ground cherries are wild and prolific and about the size of a grape. They grow inside a tiny paper lantern, much like a tomatillo. The flavor of these particular fruits was wild and sweet and sunny and glorious. Some say they taste like a cross between a strawberry, a tomato, and a pineapple. Either way they’re delicious. I asked where he had found such a treasure because I have certainly never seen them in the grocery store, and they’re even a rare find at farmer’s markets. These particular plants had taken root after Chris smeared the very seedy innards of his mother’s ground cherries over a corner of his garden. Ever since, they have been re-seeding themselves. I begged another off him and carefully stowed it by the shift stick of my car with a plan taking root in my brain.

This juicy delicious fruit grows wild across the US as well as Chris’s garden. This tells me two things: 1) The fruit can successfully seed without the help of humans. 2) The seeds and/or plants are hardy in Vermont.  The fruit seeding on its own tends to be the result of many seeds being set in rich fertilizing fruit once they’re fully ripe. The fruit I saved had so many seeds I could see them pressing up against the partially translucent orange skin. I knew Chris had simply smeared the seeds around his garden. I took the fruit to the cabin. Since it is a plant that will re-seed itself readily, I didn’t want to plant it where I’m planning a garden later. How many of us have pulled dill and cilantro that was initially planted and has since become a rather overzealous volunteer? So I decided to seed them in three different spots. I sliced the fruit into quarters. One section was an advertisement to Shane to convince him of the necessity this delicious fruit. One section will become one of the low shrubs in what will eventually be an edible hedge along the east side of our yard clearing. This will divide the straw yard from the people yard, and feed everyone. One section joined the gooseberries on the south east side of the driveway where I hope to have some semi-wild low maintenance food production going asap. The last section found a home buried in the drainage ditch that directs water away from the foundation of the house towards what will eventually be the garden. The ditch is only moist in the early spring. I tried to provide a selection of soil types and sun exposure to grant the little fruit the best possible chance to pass on its legacy. Hopefully our attempt at standing in for natural processes will yield us a plethora of petites cerises de terre. Delicieux!