Way down yonder


Finally, finally, I have managed to collect some pawpaws from my seed-grown trees before the pesky opossums, raccoons, or squirrels got to them. As commonly described, they tasted vaguely like a mix of mango and banana but were softer and creamier than either. The photo above was taken immediately after harvesting–the pawpaws were slightly soft when pressed, but their skin was still green. They continued to ripen after picking, and over a couple of days became softer, slightly more yellowish, and more delicious.

The pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba) is a member of the mostly tropical Annonaceae which also includes the soursop, custard apple, and cherimoya. The native range of A. triloba is almost entirely within the borders of the United States, from the Mississippi valley to Atlantic coast, with only a small extension into southern Ontario. The trees have a long history of cultivation in the eastern and midwestern U.S., but fruit is almost never seen in shops. Quite apart from the problem of transporting and storing the soft and short-lived fruit, it is difficult to produce in commercial quantities. The flowers of A. triloba have color and smell that indicates pollination by flies or beetles, but because they flower early in spring when the weather is still cold, pollination is often inefficient. Supposedly some people hang road-killed animals or dead fish from the branches of their trees to attract more pollinators and increase the chance of setting fruit. Adding to the difficulty, fruit set generally requires cross-pollination between two genetically distinct trees, and A. triloba tends to spread by suckers into multi-trunk patches of a single clone.

pawpaw flower in mid-April

Four of my trees were grown from seed that I obtained from a friend in 2007. To add more genetic diversity, I also purchased one additional seedling from the local farmers market. The trees started flowering about eight years ago, and for the past three or four years they have produced a few fruit which always vanished in late summer, shortly before I thought they were ready to harvest. This year, I watched the fruit obsessively and harvested as soon as I realized that one had disappeared.

Over the last few years, the trees have also started to sucker, so I am well on my way to having a pawpaw patch, just like in the song.




A male reddish-brown stag beetle (Lucanus capreolus) was wandering through the vegetable garden on Tuesday evening, presumably looking for rivals to duel. The mandibles of L. capreolus aren’t as large as those of the giant stag beetle (L. elaphus), which also lives in North Carolina, but this guy still put on an impressive threat display when I rudely prodded him with a finger.

The scientific names of L. capreolus and L. elaphus cleverly refer to the relative size of their antler-like mandibles.  L. capreolus is named for the European roe deer, Capreolus capreolus, a species with modest antlers, while L. elaphus is named for the much larger red deer (Cervus elaphus).  It is unclear to me why Linnaeus and Fabricius referred to European deer when naming North American beetles.

Despite my practice of leaving piles of rotting logs as habitat for beetle larvae and other small animals, this is the first stag beetle I have found in my garden and the first L. capreolus that I have ever seen.  Once or twice I have found L. elaphus under street lights a few miles from our house, so I have some hope of attracting them to my mouldering beetle and termite palaces.

Six on Saturday #59 (August 1, 2020)

This week’s Six on Saturday includes a couple of native species, an unusual vegetable, a cute little bulb from South Africa, a classic Victorian hybrid, and a greenhouse orchid that is really very nasty.

1. Bulbophyllum phalaenopsis


This is not an orchid for growing on your windowsill or decorating your table at a dinner party.  If you think that the flowers of Bulbophyllum phalaenopsis look a bit like rotting meat covered with yellowish maggots, I can assure you that they smell exactly the way they look.  B. phalaenopsis is pollinated by flies looking for a place to lay their eggs, but if the fly is fooled by the ersatz carrion, the maggots will starve.

2. Canna ‘Ehemannii’


C. ‘Ehemannii’ is an old Victorian hybrid of C. iridiflora crossed with (probably) C. indica, and it has inherited its drooping inflorescence from C. iridiflora.  Several modern C. iridiflora hybrids, including Canna ‘Orange Crush’ failed to survive the winter in my garden, but this plant, which I received from Bittster of Sorta Like Suburbia fame, has survived two winters so far.  I’m glad, because I adore the intense magenta color that is so very different than any other canna in my garden.

3. Sabatia species


This pretty little native wildflower often shows up at the edge of my lawn (i.e. the patch of weeds and moss that survive being mowed).  I think it is Sabatia angularis (rosepink), a widespread annual, but I am not certain.

4. Eucomis vandermerwei


E. vandermerwei, from South Africa, is one of the smallest of the pineapple lilies. Along with E. zambesiaca, it seems to be resistant to the wilting exhibited by many other Eucomis in hot sunlight, making it a good choice for a North Carolina garden.

5. Allium cernuum (nodding onion)


The nodding onion has a very wide native range, spanning the United States from Atlantic to Pacific.  In North Carolina its distribution is spotty, and although it has been reported from this county, my plants were purchased from the North Carolina Botanical Garden.  Leaves and flowers are edible but strong tasting.  I prefer to eat garlic chives.

6. Melothria scabra (Mexican sour gherkin, cucamelon)


First fruit from from a plant that we bought on a whim from a veggie seedling rack this spring.  The plant looks almost identical to the weedy Melothria pendula but its fruit are better tasting.  I could probably have left these to get a bit bigger, but then I’d risk losing them to the tree rats.

The Propagator is the host of Six on Saturday.  Head over there to see his Six and find links to the blogs of other participants.

Lady Hooker and Mr. Stone

Paphiopedilum hookerae

Currently blooming in my greenhouse: two slipper orchids from Borneo whose specific epithets are closely tied to the world of Victorian botany and horticulture.

P. hookerae foliage

Paphiopedilum hookerae is noted for the striking beauty of its tessellated foliage and extremely long inflorescence bearing a single glossy flower in rich purple and cool green. Scientific names that end in “ae” often commemorate women, and in this case the woman was Maria Hooker (née Turner).  As far as I can tell, Lady Hooker was not noted for direct botanical contributions, but she was the daughter, wife, and mother of botanists.  Her husband, Sir William Jackson Hooker was Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew from 1841 until his death in 1865, two years after P. hookerae was described.  Her son, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, was a close friend of Charles Darwin.  He served on HMS Erebus during the Ross expedition to Antarctica, collected plants in the Himalayas and western United States, and succeeded his father as Director of RBG Kew in 1865.

Paphiopedilum stonei.  Sadly, by the time the third bud finished opening, these flowers had been disfigured by an infestation of aphids

Paphiopedilum stonei is a much larger species than P. hookerae.  It has unmarked leaves that can be up to 2 feet long, and an inflorescence bearing 3-5 large flowers with strap-like petals.  P. stonei is notoriously slow-growing and it is one of the Paphiopedilum species that never seem to show their best in photographs.  In life, the flowers are impressive and elegant, while in pictures they often appear awkward and a little grotesque.

P. stonei was described by William Jackson Hooker, and he named it in honor of a gardener–but not just any gardener.  Robert Stone was the gardener who maintained the collection of John Day, an orchid enthusiast most famous for his thousands of paintings illustrating orchid species.  John Day owned the first plants of P. stonei imported into England, and those plants, cared for by Robert Stone, served as the basis for the species description published by Hooker in 1862.

In addition to its own considerable horticultural merits, P. stonei is noteworthy as a parent of the beautiful hybrid Paphiopedilum Lady Isobel, whose name and history I have previously discussed.