March 31, 2020

Reaping the Fruits of the Backyard Orchard

Apples ripe on the tree in September

Janine Pineo Photo | Apples ripe on the tree in September

• By Janine Pineo •

My wish to live near an orchard came true this year, and I didn’t even have to move — it was in my own yard.

Over the past decade, my family has planted seven apple trees up past the vegetable garden, including McIntosh, Wolf River and some weird one that is supposed to grow five different varieties depending on which branches bloom.

Apples are the most commonly cultivated fruit trees, which isn’t surprising once you know there are 25 species of apple trees with thousands of different varieties.

I prefer a sensible apple like the McIntosh, a Maine staple that is delicious in baked goods and straight from the tree.

This spring, our largest Mac tree blossomed for the first time. True, there weren’t a lot of flowers, but this fall we picked more than two dozen apples.

I don’t take credit for this harvest because I confess that I am not enamored of high-maintenance vegetation. Prune, the books say, and then they detail instructions on where, when and how to do it (apple trees grow pretty well by themselves in the wild, don’t they?).

The flower buds of a black cherry

Pineo Photo | The flower buds of a black cherry

Back when the trees were youngsters, I pruned a couple of times, taking off dead branches and trying to shape the live ones without permanently damaging any of the trees. I wrapped the trunks one year because mice had chewed off some of the bark the previous winter, but I had to pry the wrap off when I forgot to remove it before the new growth started. And just how do you differentiate between the branch with flower buds and the one with leaf buds when the tree hasn’t flowered before?

Perhaps credit should go to my sister, who read that the tree trunks should be spanked in spring with a rolled-up newspaper, probably a task best done when the neighbors are away. Maybe it’s the threat that they’ll become pulp if they don’t start producing or maybe it gets the sap flowing, but this year we got results.

Long before the apple trees were planted, my mother ordered a pair of English walnut trees. What she got was a set of black walnut twigs because the others were out of stock.

So into the front yard went the twigs, with one succumbing to the elements and one taking root. As the one grew tall and sturdy, I warded off threats to chop the tree down because everyone assumed it took two to pollinate.

How wrong could we be?

After a couple years of seeing some curious growths (turns out the male flowers look like catkins with the female flower at the tip of the same branch), imagine everyone’s surprise when several clusters of black walnuts were spotted this summer.

The nuts are a bit of a puzzle. Encased in a meaty green husk is an extremely thick shell that holds the seed. The first task is to avoid staining your hands, dishes and counters with the dye in the husk, the source of the original black walnut stain. The dye changes color when exposed to the air, turning from a golden hue to brown to black.

Once the husk is off, then comes the dilemma of cracking the shell. Forget hammers, one book said, drive over it with a car. I can see the squirrels now.

While the nuts are tasty, black walnut is prized for another reason: its wood. Also called American walnut, the tree grows 70 to 90 feet tall with a trunk 2 to 4 feet in diameter. The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees says black walnut, which is found mostly in the eastern half of the United States, is “one of the scarcest and most coveted native hardwoods,” used in furniture, gunstocks and veneer.

The flowers of a black cherry

Pineo Photo | The flowers of a black cherry

Another fruit tree found in several spots around the 2-acre family plot also is sought for its wood. The black cherry tree on the front lawn and a few others lining the eastern side of the back yard revealed their glorious selves this summer with a spectacular display of tiny, but plump cherries that dripped off the branches like shiny beads.

I knew it was a cherry tree in the front yard that blossomed a misty shade of white every spring, but I hadn’t investigated further, especially since the cherries never were anything more than hard, brownish seeds.

What happened to make cherries appear I can only guess at. Perhaps the trees in the back yard were finally mature enough to cross-pollinate. The results were enough to prompt me to learn more about what the Audubon guide calls “the largest and most important native cherry” in the United States. Its wood is used in everything from furniture and paneling to scientific instruments and toys.

Black cherry, also called wild cherry and rum cherry, grows to 80 feet with a 2-foot-diameter trunk, its bark split with deep fissures. The trees can be found from southern Quebec and south to central Florida and west to East Texas, although there are scattered stands from central Texas west to Arizona and south to Mexico. Black cherry was one of the first trees from the New World shipped to England’s gardeners, recorded as far back as 1629.

With that in mind, I turned my attention to the fruit, which is only about one-quarter-inch around and matures in late summer from deep red to black.

“Wild cherry syrup, a cough medicine, is obtained from the bark, and jelly and wine are prepared from the fruit,” the Audubon guide said.

That, of course, convinced me I could harvest some cherries and make a few pints of jelly. A few hours and a lot of sugar later, I found myself with several jars of sauce.

Black cherry sundaes, anyone?

First published in the Bangor Daily News in October 1997.