Saturday, August 3, 2013

Jamaican Cherry - A Tribute

If you've stayed here at Kona Kai over the years, you have hopefully timed your visit to coincide with the harvest of at least one of our fruits from our tropical fruit garden. This is an important part of our ethnobotanical theme, as food is a major way people rely on plants for survival and well-being. Pretty much all food, meat included, ultimately comes from plants in some way or another (mineral seasonings like salt being a notable exception), and we would certainly be more than a little sad if we had nothing to eat. Interestingly, our diets here in America often only include perhaps only a percent or two of all edible species and varieties of edible plants available in the world. Our tropical fruit garden is a great place to introduce people to foods they've never tried before, which hopefully opens their eyes a bit more to the diversity of plants out there in the world (and even in their own grocery store). It sometimes takes people a bit out of their apples-oranges-bananas comfort zone to try a fruit new to them, but most everyone I've offered one to is glad they gave it a try.

Here we have pummelo (sliced and prepared), jaboticaba (dark purple), starfruit, and Jamaican cherry.

It's important to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, not only for nutritional and preventative medicinal reasons, but also because if something is not used, it is usually much more easily lost. We currently have very little idea about what nutritional, medicinal, or other resources might lie in many of these less-than-well-known fruit trees, and if we only eat apples, bananas, and oranges, then guess what will be planted and offered for sale? If we as consumers choose and demand a greater variety of fruits and vegetables, then we can contribute to sustaining biodiversity instead of monoculture. Perhaps as a result, you'll one day see some of these less-well-known delectable tropical gems offered at your local grocer.

One of those gems, Jamaican cherry (Muntingia calabura), has been a fruit pretty much everyone has enthusiastically enjoyed because of its amazing cotton-candy-like flavor and simplicity of preparation (just pick and eat!). The tree sets fruit for much of the year, so I usually had at least one for each person on a tour with me, although the squirrels and birds sometimes got a bit too overzealous, forgetting to leave a few for us. I don't blame them, though, as the fruits certainly are delicious.

A ripe Jamaican cherry, which disappeared immediately after this photo was taken...

We have had very few issues with our much-loved Jamaican cherry tree besides having to cut back some of its vigorous branches, but back in May of 2012, it was found leaning against our shed after a particularly stormy night.

Luckily the shed was a close support!

Fortunately, we were able, with the help of Joe's truck, to pull the tree back to its former upright position and then tie it to a nearby California fan palm (Washingtonia filifera) as an anchor. It seemed to be doing very well, filling out its branches and producing copious amounts of fruit, until just over a year later, this past June, we found it leaning over again - this time in the opposite direction.

We took one look at the trunk and knew that the tree was nearing its end, with probably no more than a few months left to live. Its core appeared to be rotting away, and now the trunk had broken with its roots on two sides. Our tree's decline made sense to me, as the tree is what is known as an early-successional tree species in the wild, which means the tree is a quick grower, forming part of the first tree canopies in its native forests. To do this, early successional tree species will often sacrifice wood quality for quick growth. As soon as a disturbance makes a clearing in the forest, these trees begin their sprint. Grasses and shrubs usually have their "time in the sun" first, but the trees eventually displace them (depending on the habitat, of course). Their victory, however, will be short-lived as larger trees with more solid trunks, such as our native West Indies mahogany, are developing in the understory and eventually overtake the the early successional tree species like the Jamaican cherry. That's ok, though, because by this time, the Jamaican cherry tree has had plenty of seasons of flowering and fruit production with many creatures willing to disperse its seeds far and wide to await the next disturbance.

Despite being infected with rot and falling over, it was producing more fruit than we could eat, right up to the very end, giving until it could give no more.

The entire trunk was rotting out.

Our tree was planted in 1996, so 17 years is not that bad of a life for an early-successional tree, especially as it produced so much fruit in that time, seeming to take as credo the saying: "the important thing is not the years in your life, but the life in your years." As we know, the tree never actually got to taste any of its own delicious fruits, but after it met its own needs, used whatever else it had to produce these wonderful fruits for us, along with many of our resident birds and squirrels, to enjoy. Its life was then a source of life and enjoyment for many other creatures. For that, it will be remembered and greatly missed. Perhaps there is something here for us to learn from this tree. Our thoughts, words, and actions can be seen as our "fruits," which we produce and share with others. Which trees are the ones most enjoyed while alive, then missed and celebrated the most when they die? The ones that produce the greatest amounts of the most delicious fruit made available to enjoy. Less so are those trees that produce no enjoyable fruit. Least of all are those trees that produce putrid fruits. The same can be said for people - the sweeter and more abundant their "fruits," the more others enjoy being around them and will miss and celebrate their memory when they are gone. I hope that in this sense we may all be, in our own lives and our own ways, Jamaican cherry trees in the larger garden of the world.

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

P.S. In case you were wondering, we are hoping to replace the tree with another Jamaican cherry : )

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