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This morning I was so excited while sending in my online rose order that I gave a shipping date of a month earlier than was wise. Now I have to call them and explain that my desire to get these new roses in the ground overwhelmed me, but I finally realized I have to bow to the realities of our Heath climate.

Having put off planting dates, I satisfied myself by settling back to finish two excellent but very different books that I have been reading.

The Perfect Fruit: Good Breeding, Bad Seeds, and the Hunt for the Elusive Pluot Bloomsbury $25) is by Chip Brantley, a local author who has written extensively about food and flavor.

I confess that when I first saw pluots being sold at the supermarket, I thought it was some kind of marketing ploy, and that fruit farmers were simply operating under the theory that consumers would buy more of anything new. I did not think that farmers were actually looking for fruit with wonderful flavor and sweetness. Brantley has disabused me of that un-generous thought.

Brantley also explains why I, and many other shoppers, have hesitated in front of the plum bins at the market. There are dozens of plum varieties that ripen over a long season. The simply labeled black or red plums that you buy on July 1 are not going to be the same black or red plums you buy on July 15 or August 1. You’ll be getting a different plum as the different varieties ripen. This explains why I have hurried back to a store to see if I could get the plums from that particular shipment because they were so good. It never occurred to me they were good, or only OK, because I was getting a different variety each time.

Some fruit breeders in California like Floyd Zaiger who have been growing and hybridizing fruit for more than a half century, wanted to make the plum more flavorful and crossed plums with other fruits, resulting in pluots, plumcots, and apriums, all plum-apricot hybrids. Brantley learned that one of the measures of a good hybrid was its Brix measure. The Brix scale measures sugar content.. A Brix of 12 is poor, 21 is really good but 26 is outstanding.

Brantley reminds us that Luther Burbank, one of the great hybridizers, was a Massachusetts native, growing up in Lancaster, and moving to California in 1875 where he started improving all manner of plants including the plum. He was the first to use the term plumcots and in 1907 introduced his Santa Rosa plum, which was the most widely sold plum in the U.S. for over 50 years.

We also get to meet Rod Milton, whose family had been farming for over 100 hundred years, Mike Jackson who decided to ‘chase flavor’, as we learn all about Dapple Dandies, Flavorella and Dinosaur Eggs in the most entertaining way.

In Lives of the Trees: An Uncommon History (Algonquin $19.95) Diana Wells takes us through centuries of myth and history to give us weird, wonderful and poetic facts about 100 familiar and not so familiar trees. For example, how many of you have been stumped when a child asked you what is frankincense? Or even worse, what would the Baby Jesus need with frankincense?

According to Wells Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt sent to the Land of Punt (now Somaliland) for 32 frankincense trees to plant near an Egyptian temple in 1482 BCE. As you might imagine from its name, the small frankincense tree produces a resin that is used as a high quality incense. It was extremely valuable.  As for the Baby Jesus, I always imagined that the three gifts brought by the Wise Men financed the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt, and kept them afloat until it was safe for them to return to Nazareth.

The maple which is native to many parts of the world, gets a substantial entry ranging from our native red maple to the varied and delicate maples of Japan and the Norway maple which has become a dangerous invasive in our country.

I have long wondered about the Monkey-puzzle tree which shows up in so many English mysteries and novels. This tree, Araucaria, is originally from Chile; seeds were was brought to England in 1795. It is so ancient that it was growing in the days of the dinosaurs. It has been thought that those strong prickles protected the tree from browsing dinos.

Monkey-puzzle trees were very popular in England, especially during the Victorian age as a weird and exotic specimen tree. I saw a couple in California, and did not see the appeal, but it is a different time.

Many of the trees Wells describes are ancient varieties, or ancient in their current self. There is a bristlecone pine in California that is called the Methusela tree because it has been calculated to be 4700 years old.

Olive trees send up shoots after the main trunk is cut down, regenerating itself  for centuries. Some olive trees are thought to be 1000 years old.

For a time coffee was one of the most dangerous trees. It was banned by both Muslims and Christians at different time. Coffee drinkers could even be put in sacks and drowned in Constantinople for a time.

So many trees.  So many stories. More than enough to while away the hours before rose planting season. ###

Hope to see some of you at the Greenfield Winterfare on Saturday, February 6 from 10 – 2 pm at Greenfield High School. Fresh produce, barter fare, workshops and Soup for Lunch.

Between the Rows  January 23, 2010

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