May 14, 2011

Adventures With Fruit

While riding the New York City subway I either do the daily sudoku puzzle or I read the New Yorker or one of many books or magazines about botany, gardening or garden/landscape design. Sometimes I just grab whatever reading material is nearby as I rush out of the house. For a few weeks I read a book titled Fruits Trees of the Caribbean. It covers the Caribbean in general but fails to include many of the fruits I grew up eating and cherished while growing up in rural Trinidad. I decided to seek out some of these missing fruits on my next trip home. I wondered how many of my nieces and nephews ever ate a tonka bean fruit or topi tambo or peewah or balata. My Plan was to photograph these fruits and write about them along with some other not-so-familiar fruits and educate myself and others in the process.

                                                                      balata (Manilkara bidentata)

My trip began at the end of December 2010. After a night out on the town, my sister and I returned to our room at the Hyatt in Port-of-Spain at about 4:30 on the morning of New Year's day. We were exhausted and happy. Dancing is so much fun. There on the table sat one of two magazines highlighting the history and culture of T&T. To my delight and chagrin there was a short article about fruits of Trinidad and Tobago with a note that the author had just completed a chart listing all ninety-four (94) fruits found on the twin-island republic. Alas, he had not just beaten me to it but had gone far beyond the scope of my plan. I made a note to seek him out.

A couple weeks later, after emails and phone conversations, we met at the foot of Lady Chancellor Road leading to the Horticultural Society of Trinidad and Tobago. His name is Nasser Khan and he is a feature writer for the Trinidad Guardian and other local newspapers. Mr Khan has written many articles on cricket and the history of Trinidad and Tobago. Check his work out at As a result of the work on the fruit chart Mr Khan has been commissioned to create similar charts for each of the Caribbean islands. He is also working on the publication of a text book to be used as a guideline for students studying local agriculture. All this is done outside of his role as a businessman in the commercial industry of Trinidad and Tobago Carnival. He is a very knowledgeable, energetic and passionate man and I thoroughly enjoyed the little time we spent talking while driving around Port-of- Spain. In addition to admitting to the fact that I am ignorant about many of the fruits on the chart, speaking with Mr Khan made me aware of how little I know about current events in T&T. I am inspired to keep more informed (as if the constant political drama of America is not enough to keep me occupied and depressed).

Unlike many Caribbean islands, Trinidad shares the flora and fauna of much of South America. Many trees which are endemic to Trinidad are also native to Brazil, Guyana and Suriname. We also share many of the poisonous snakes and primates. Think of all of South America packed into one small island, separated from the continent by a few miles of ocean. Fruit names like cocorite, gru-gru and gang gang, and of course, peewah always remind me that I am the daughter of the soil shared by natives or Ameriandians who populated the island at the time of Christopher Columbus' “discovery”. I imagine that these fruits, especially peewah, were the source of starchy powder to make breads and other nutritous foods for Caribs and Arawaks. I crave these fruits and identify with them as much as I feel the need to move my body when I hear drummers beating out their rhythms on the subway platforms.

Cocorite (Attalea maripa)
Sweet and yellowish brown when ripe, cocorite's lure is in the thin layer of sweet flesh which surrounds a dense pit, wrapped in a papery skin. The pit which is about 1.5 inches long is smooth and brown and shaped like a zeppelin with two eyes on the rounded end. As children we would rub the eyes on concrete until the area around them became thin enough to pierce the eyes with a pin or small nail. We would then pry out tiny pieces of the coconut-like flesh inside until the seed was a hollow vessel into which we could blow and voila, we had a whistle. Cocorite is eaten whole and dispersed by forest animals. My father grew up near the Pitch Lake in La Brea and still today talks of his adventures through the cocorite fields on his way to and from school.


Peewah (Bactris gasipaes)
Some of my favorite childhood memories are of waiting for the freshly boiled peewah (chataigne or topi tambo) to become cool enough to be handled and eaten. Cooked in salted water, peewah is a starchy treat with a thin shell housing a little coconut in the middle. A seedless version called kerekel may be the result of an undeveloped or unfertilized ovules. Kerekel is often acorn shaped and has a milder flavor than the darker-fleshed and skinned peewah.

Tonka Bean (Dipteryx odorata)
The fruit in best known for the treasured seed which is often compared to vanilla bean with hints of caramel, vanilla and almond. It contains a chemical called coumarin which is harmful if ingested at high levels. Tonka Bean is used to flavor sweets, ice-cream and it is a common ingredient in perfumes. It is rumored that tonka bean extract is the secret ingredient in the much coveted recipe of the legendary Angostura Bitters, produced solely in Trinidad.

Most people do not realize that the seed is just one intriguing part of this delicious fruit. The papery skin covers a half inch thick layer of marzipan-like sweetness held together by short fine hairs attached to the large seed. As children, we used our bottom teeth to scrape off the pasty flesh and ended up with teeth-full of fine fibers. It was always worth it. The washed and fluffed hairy seed was an excellent throw thing and with some grooming and eyes it made an excellent and very quiet pet.

Balata (Manilkara bidentata)
I vaguely remember some story about balata trees being the home of poisonous snakes. That never interfered with my love for this hard-to find fruit. It is a small fruit of about an inch in diameter with a rather large seed surrounded by a very sweet, grainy pulp containing a gummy milk. The milk makes it unpleasant to eat sometimes but that problem can easily be solved by using a spoon to scoop out the delicious, sapodilla-like flesh. It was difficult to keep my objective in sight. I was so excited about finding some balata that I ate almost all before remembering to photograph them. Balata trees are known as rubber trees and my father described how his mother and other workers cut “V” slits on the trunks to collect the sap in rubber fields common many years ago. The sap is used to make latex and other rubber products.

Like the wood of poui (Tabebuia), a tree well known in Trinidad for its beautiful habit and colorful blossoms, balata wood is extremely dense and has much commercial value for its strength and durability. Deforestation continues to rob us of natural habitats for diverse creatures and makes some once-common fruit trees almost rare. I could only hope that as these very significant trees are harvested for furniture and construction or cleared for housing and roads that seedlings are planted to avoid decimation of the population. The cocorite fields through which my father and his siblings walked to and from school have almost all been cleared by expanding oil companies. Peewah is rarely seen on the market. I would like my sons and later generations to experience the joys of tasting and knowing these unique fruits and realize that they are part of the natural history of the islands, most carried over from the continent and all harvested by myriads of ethnic groups for centuries. These fruits are a record of our illustrious past. Today balata trees are almost always found deep in the forest, possibly and justly so, guarded by massive pythons.

May 8, 2011

Spring in Central Park

A few photos.

Spring and Love

It is spring! After a long winter we welcome the beginning of this new period that is ripe with promise and optimism for a better year ahead. The red buds are showing off their stuff, magnolias are bursting open, narcissus are reaching up saying “Look at me, me” and love is in the air. What better place is there for a outing than at the New York Botanical Gardens. You are privy to the world's largest collection of plants in North America and if and you are fortunate to live in New York City, this magnificent 250 acre garden is your very own special backyard. Fill your backpack with some fruit, water, cornichons, cheese, pate, bread or crackers and wine. Wear your walking shoes. Grab the one or ones you love and a camera and head out. Take Metro-North to the Botanical Garden Stop or the D or number 4 trains to Bedford Park stop and a short walk to the Mosholu entrance on Kazimiroff Boulevard. Get a map as you enter and begin exploring.

Start with the Daffodil walk and see how many types of narcissus there are. These carpets of cheerful blossoms are a most welcoming sight. Some have double petals, ruffled skirts, stiff petticoats and tinged centers. A few are fragrant while others have erect cups or elegant wing like petals. Do not bypass the rock garden with its display of miniature narcissus, crocuses, rock irises, every imaginable species of tulip and much more. You can’t miss Scilla siberica which is my all time favorite spring-flowering bulb, quite possibly because it offers a perfect true blue (cobalt to azure) flower which is uncommon in the garden.

Nearby is the Mertz Library which hosts the largest collection of botanical and horticultural information to be found anywhere in the world. Delve into the history of botany, the impact of plants on the scientific revolution and see similarities between the collapse of Wall Street and the upheaval of the 17th century European economy, all to be blamed on that deceitful, bewitching beauty named Tulipa. Inform yourself about Darwin’s theories on natural selection and plant observations. Please don’t drool over the gorgeous display of colorful botanical illustrations some of which are centuries old. Read about the history of botanical Latin and plant nomenclature so you can later torture your sweetheart by using the descriptive parts of plant names in everyday banter, “looking rather pubescent this morning darling” or “toenails acutus....”

The Enid Haupt Conservatory is the largest greenhouse in North America and displays the breathtaking tropical rain forests collection that always makes me giddy with pleasure and also thoroughly homesick. Observe how the temperature changes as you meander from room to room and feel the mist on your skin as you encounter a multitude of towering ferns, mosses and plants that seem otherworldly yet like they have been growing there, undisturbed for centuries. Linger in the Aquatic Plants room to be mesmerized by the giant jade vine, Strongylodon macrobotrys. I first saw this phenomenal plant growing on a hillside in Kingston and then years later in Maui. It took my breath away. Oh My God! Yes! Who else but God could have conceived of such a confluence of unreal blues, purples and mint greens into this hanging mass of claw-like, cascading wonder. There is nothing like it, at least not on this planet. A few feet away you will find the reddest of red passion flower, Passiflora vitifolia var. bractiosa and the very exotic and showy blossoms of Thunbergia mysorensis .

Step outside to be in the presence of majestic lotus flowers, water lilies, papyrus and other water-loving plants sheltering bright orange koi before heading back inside to proceed along the walk to the cool, misty rooms of the rain forest flora and through the tunnel to the cactus and succulent collection. There you will find an explosion of textures and plant forms some of which look so unlike living matter. It is amazing to see how plants adapt to growing conditions, some even in the harshest terrains, and realize that like humans they are determined to survive.

Even when the annual orchid exhibit is over you will find a wide assortment of this very sensual flower tucked among or protruding from the greener plants. These exotic plants will have you oohing and aahing repeatedly. The origin of the word orchid is “orkhis“ which means “testicle”. Georgia O'Keefe brought to our attention other body parts in her beautiful flower portraits and it is easy to see through her eyes when you observe these amazing specimens. The Aztecs and Greeks believed that orchids increased fertility and virility. Some have an intoxicating fragrance, (vanilla beans come from orchids) and others have been used in love potions. Nothing says "I dig you" like a gift of orchids.

The Mertz Library hosts the largest collection of botanical and horticultural information to be found anywhere in the world. Delve into the history of botany, the impact of plants on the scientific revolution and see similarities between the collapse of Wall street and the upheaval of the 17 the century European economy all to be blamed on that deceitful, bewitching beauty named Tulipa. Inform yourself about Darwin’s theories on natural selection and plant observations. Please don’t drool over the gorgeous display of colorful botanical illustrations some of which are centuries old. Read about the history of botanical Latin and plant nomenclature so you can later torture your honey by using the descriptive parts of plant names in everyday banter “looking rather pubescent this morning darling” or “toenails acutus....”

Take a stroll to the stunning magnolia gardens where you can loose yourself among the multitude of blossoms. Continue walking south to the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Gardens. This garden is just a tease in early spring but make a note to check back in a few weeks to savor the allure and sheer beauty as you are surrounded by the fragrance and magic of the most perfect flower, all arranged in this strikingly designed garden with a formal radial axis. Very romantic. Delight in the very phallic bronze sculptures of Amorphallus titanum by Tom Otterness at the Nolan Greenhouses. Then wander over to the Benenson Ornamental Conifers. Who knew there were so many types of conifers, some so compact, perfectly shaped and as cute as a button. These lovelies provide greenery throughout winter and the range of hues and shapes make them desirable for the sunny garden, container or window box. You can take the tram all over the 250 acres but if you and your date are walkers, stroll and enjoy. There are so many nooks and crannies and lovely sites that you will not be able to resist stealing kisses frequently. Hands off - the plants please.

Your date may end at the very classy and tastefully stocked Botanical Garden Shop with its inventory or high quality botanically inspired wares for the home and garden, jewelry and a host of gift -giving products ranging from plants to toys. There you will find books on architecture, landscaping, botanical arts and or course all manner of books and horticulture. As a gardener I’ve found the plant selection to be more varied and interesting than at the farmers market on Union Square. You may be introduced to some new beauty like the striking eriginum, Papaver orientals or various shades and Brunnera macrophylla.

For a romantic dinner take a short walk through the main entrance, through Lehman College and head to Arthur Avenue, a very authentic Italian-American community packed with delis, restaurants, seafood and butcher shops and fresh food markets. It is a place uncrowded by tourist and feels more like Italy than Little Italy in Manhattan ever does.

It is all too easy to forget to take care of yourself especially when much of your energy is focused on taking care of others. Solitary walks through the garden can be a very rejuvenating and introspective experience, especially in spring. There is so much beauty and bounty in this ever-changing rolling landscape that some of it seems to permeate the senses and nourish the soul. Such walks, along Daffodil Hill, past splendidly flowering weeping cherries and crab apples, towards the river and waterfall and across the bridges near the Goldman Stone Mill never fail to revitalize my spirit and inspire hope and resolutions for the rest of the year. There is a shady nook between the Seasonal Walk and the Display Gardens. I sometimes sit there and observe the various birds happily splashing around in the little brook and imagine the garden is the most perfect home for them and other creatures, like myself. The garden is synonymous with comfort and peace and inspires me to love and do good things for myself so I can better love and care for others.

If you are not yet a member of The New York Botanical Garden, become one now since you will want to make regular visits. The garden changes constantly throughout the year so always check to see what‘s new. Your dates there are promised to never be boring. Don’t miss the display of peonies along Perennial Garden Way and the gorgeous displays at the Luce Herb and Irwin Perennial Gardens. All kinds of novel plant combinations will thrill you as you walk along the matrimonial, uhm, I mean the Seasonal Walk. There a perfect outdoor room just ahead. No wonder the garden is a favorite spot for bridal showers and weddings. Exit on the right and head to the display gardens and once again delight your senses with the assortment of color, fragrance and texture. Make a gift of membership to the New York Botanical Gardens to a loved-one. It is guaranteed to be the beginning of a rewarding and lovely long-term relationship, with the garden.


Russ, a recently added member, has been keeping the paths weed-free and tidy. The black swallowtail butterfly lays its eggs on bronze ...