10% mortality, and saying goodbyes

I spent a sweaty morning recently taking stock of how the pilón trees we planted back in May are doing. You’ll recall that we brought them to the finca as tiny little clones, with three or four leaves as their only resources in the face of intense sun, intense rain, grazing insects and mammals, fungi….and grass, so much grass to compete with. They got a little dose of fertilizer nearby to jump start things, and as much love as Carlos and I could give between planting teak, fighting off deer and insect attacks in last year’s plantations and carting another 800 trees up the hill.

I walked all the rows counting and observing. Many look lush and are growing fast. Others are hanging in there in a way that makes you say “c’mon little guy, you can do it….” Some were so deeply entwined in tangled grass that I couldn’t find them at first. Fertilizer is just as good for grass as it is for pilón! And about 10% of them were simply gone. Maybe a rotting brown stalk, maybe just the remnant of a jiffy capsule when we poked around where the hole had been.

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A flourishing pilon

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C’mon little guy… you can do it!

10% mortality isn’t particularly bad. I’ve been told it’s within the parameters one might expect in any plantation, even where chemicals are used to kill the competition and control pests. Still, these were our trees. I put most of those little things into the ground myself. Did I do something wrong? Will many more die? I think both Carlos and I felt a bit somber when I gave him the stats.

It’s a reminder that things don’t always thrive, that nature will have her way despite your best intentions and loving care. It hit home I guess, because it’s been a somber time for me in other respects. Last week we had to put my housemate Dani’s dear cat, Pato, to sleep. He was only 5, a beautiful black cat and a beautiful feline soul. Pato was Astro’s buddy (as far as that goes for cats) in Turrialba and for a brief time in Escazu. When I moved across town into the new apartment earlier this year, sharing again with Dani, Pato was part of the package, and it’s been so lovely.

Pato went blind and was diagnosed with feline Hodgkins lymphoma in January; since then it’s been a gentle decline. Dani dedicated herself to ensuring his remaining time was peaceful and comfortable, chineándolo as folks say here. (He happily ate the feline equivalent of daily McDonalds in the end times…) He slept in the sunshine and continued to be a source of joy until the very end.

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mealtime with Pato the gato

Far less final, but still a bit of a bummer, Dani is moving away this month to do her Master’s degree in a fantastic program at U of Florida, Gainesville. I am hopeful that the land of Trump treats her well, and will try not to indulge in much self-pity about this ‘so long for now’ to my best friend here in Costa Rica. Life is nothing if not change and growth. Trees provide all the right metaphors.

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thank you for sharing Pato with me, Dani!

Mamon chino season! And a grafting lesson with my favorite fruit

Glory days in the finca…the mamon chinos are ripe! Everyone, from the squirrel monkeys to the scarlet macaws to the Baird’s tapir to yours truly, is stoked about the brief window when these weird perfect little fruits ripen and bestow their bounty.  It almost makes us forget that the mangos are done.

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These fruits are so popular that Carlos made a scarecrow – or actually a scaremonkey – espantamonos! – to keep our local troupe of squirrel monkeys at bay long enough for me to have a shot at eating a few.

As I wrote in Sol de Osa, the mamón chino is another gift from Asia, where it’s called rambutan (Nephelium lappaceum). Rambut means hair in Indonesian, appropriately enough for its appearance. 15 years ago I worked studying orangutans in Indonesian Borneo, and one of their favorite foods in the forest were wild rambutans. Imagine my delight upon moving to Costa Rica and realizing that this species had been brought over and cultivated with such delicious success.

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There’s little reason to pick favorites unless you’re participating in a permaculture workshop intro game (‘tell us your name, where you’re from and your favorite fruit….’) but, since you asked, I’m going with rambutans.  It’s the whole experience: the aesthetic pleasure of a pile of rubbery-haired fruits, richly red or yellow-pink, perfectly sized for your palm; the momentary taste of earthy and bitter as you break the skin open with your teeth; the suspense before you bite, wondering what the sweet : tart ratio will be and whether the flesh will flake easily off the seed or cling and need to be gnawed away; the finale of flavor and texture; the memories of Borneo. The fact that you can proceed to repeat all of the above steps until there’s a troublingly large pile of husks and seeds at your feet. It’s just a great fruit.

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I have six mamon chino trees in the finca, in Sector Astronium near the Sacred Grove (where most of the dedicated trees are).  They were planted by Freddy, the previous owner, and each one is unique in its precise taste and color.

I want to plant more in other parts of the farm. Basically I don’t ever want to be more than 50 meters from a mamon chino tree. And because the ones I already have are so good, Carlos and I decided to reproduce them with grafting. A graft, as you probably know, is when you take a branch from an adult tree whose genetics you want to reproduce, and vegetatively attach it to another seedling. The host tree doesn’t even need to be the same variety; its value lies not in any fruit but in being a robust seedling that’s already developed root mass, that’s strong and able to immediately pump lots of nutrients and water. Meanwhile, the grafted material, because it comes from a mature tree, begins to give fruit far more rapidly and consistently than if you’d grown something from seed (3 yrs versus 8-10).

For years I’ve heard of and seen and bought grafts, but I’ve never done it myself. Well, that’s precisely the point of all this finca madness, right? So Carlos gave me a little lesson, because of course he’s good at this too:

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This is the graft tree. Carlos cuts the stem just below the first leaves or buds.

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Choosing a ‘scion’ (the tree whose fruit you want!). must be close to same size as your graft tree, and have a few leaves/buds.

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We cut a notch into the graft and insert the scion, which has been trimmed angularly to insert as flush as possible – cambium on cambium – and treated lightly with basic plant growth hormone.

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Then you wrap that whole situation up tight with, in this case, a strip of plastic bag. (electrical tape, aluminum foil, other things work too. high tech.) And then you talk nicely to the little guy and cross your fingers.

Voila! So exciting. Grafts, to me, are yet more proof of just how much trees want to survive and grow. Cut them apart and saran-wrap different individuals back together? Sure, let’s grow! I’m amazed by their creative strategies for resilience in the face of defoliation, penetration, decapitation, drowning, baking, burning, insect hordes….. More on that topic someday soon. Meanwhile, time to eat.

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We may need to make a ladder. As it is, more fruit for the birds!

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The morning’s harvest, nom nom nom