Sunday, May 2, 2010

Leafing Out

Early spring on the Maine coast is one of my favorite times to go looking for early growth. At this time of year the ferns are springing up from the earth and unfurling. These are in the field across from the house. The ones pictured aren't the fiddlehead kind, which also are unfurling now for foragers. Fiddlehead ferns are such a delicacy lightly steamed and then tossed with butter and garlic, or with a bit of vinegar, that they can be found at the supermarkets now, and for about a couple of weeks until the supply runs out. Unlike garden vegetables whose growth in different lattitudes permits a more or less continuous supply in the markets, they are a wild crop, native to this region, and their season is short--and then it's over. They can be frozen and stored after blanching, but the fresh ones have the best flavor and by far the best texture. The taste is indescribable, really, but a bit like asparagus and a bit like spinach. Delicious.
You don't have to go far into the fields to find wild strawberry blossoms now, but you do have to look for them right on the ground. Although they're abundant, the berries usually get eaten by animals browsing in the fields, even before they're ripe, so if you want to enjoy them you need either to put a transparent row cover tent over them, or a little cage. Many's the time I would mark, in my mind, where one or another clump was in bloom, to return a few weeks later to find--nothing!
Of course, the most abundant ground fruit here is the low-bush blueberry. At this time of the year the flowers are showing but not yet blooming. When they do, the local bees will pollinate them. I hear that the bee population in North America is under great stress and that fully 1/3 of the colonies died over the winter. The farmers who grow blueberries commercially in large fields usually hire beekeepers to bring hives to their fields during blossom time, and you can see the supers at the edges of the fields by the road. On this property there are plenty of blueberry blossoms and they seem to attract bees without any problem each year, but I'll be on the lookout to see if the population seems smaller this year. The berries themselves ripen in July, and gradually they're eaten by browsing deer as well as by birds, but if I start gathering them when they just turn ripe I can usually get as many as I want.
This blog entry wouldn't be complete without a picture of two of the budding apple blossoms, now at the tip stage--ahead of their normal schedule. This first picture is of a blossom cluster on the Prima tree out in the orchard, which like most apple trees is biennial, blooming more heavily in alternate years. Last year was an off year for the Prima, so this year, despite the general lack of bloom, it will bear many apples. The Prima is one of the scab-resistant varieties bred and made available to growers in the late 1970s. It is a large apple, which ripens in September, one of the earliest of the apples around here. It stores for only a month or so, usually enough to bring it to the cider pressing where it is sweeter and less acidic than most, and therefore valuable in the blend. If you use too many sharp, tannic, acidic apples the result will be tasty but bitter.
The Prima is one of the earliest varieties here, and so its blossom buds are more advanced than most; but one of the unidentified varieties back of the house blossoms first always, and so we'll have a look at it, a few days advanced over the Prima. This is the same tree from which I showed a leaf whorl without blossoms in yesterday's entry. The cooperative extension service at the University of Maine issues an apple crop pest report every few weeks during the growing season, and this year looks like a tough one for the growers. The mild winter without much snow enabled many of the pests to survive in greater numbers than usual. I used to spray my trees with botanical organic compounds, but I've found that in recent years it's not necessary. Much of the fruit is good and some is perfect without spraying here. And so, taking the simpler way when possible, I leave off spraying and hope for the best. We'll see what happens this year.

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