Winter arrived yesterday, and you might think the outdoors has little to offer the plant lover this time of year, but as I remind readers each year, each season offers it rewards. As Shakespeare intoned:
“At Christmas I no more desire a rose
Than wish a snow in May’s new-fangled mirth;
But like of each thing that in season grows.”
So in the past few weeks I have enjoyed the furry flower buds of magnolia set for springtime only one more season to come and the domelike protected flower buds of Kousa dogwood. I traveled to Clifton Gorge near Yellow Springs and saw thousands of the thick leaves of hepatica which presage the ultimate in grace: hepatica flowers with starry stamens above a corolla of azure blue sky petals coming perhaps in late winter (in southern Ohio) or early spring in Northeast Ohio.
In our immediate view, some mosses are still verdant green in woodlands, baldcypress groves and swamps sport red-gold cypress straw covering the soft ground or swamp waters, such as at Dawes Arboretum near Newark. And, until the last few days, Shakespeare notwithstanding, out-of-season rose flowers still adorned many local landscapes.
Let’s return though to the basics, the ultimate traditions for all seasons. Which is to say, food. A few weeks ago, this column featured some tree-foods we ate at a recent Sebring “ArborEatum” meal with students at Ohio State University’s Agricultural Technical Institute, namely nutmeg, cashews, cornelian cherry dogwood jam and walnuts. Here are two last tree fruit items on that menu: lemons and crab apples.
“Lemon tree very pretty and the lemon flower is sweet …” goes the old song. Sweet and tart was the lemon pie we ate, with a cup of lemon juice, eight teaspoons of lemon zest, egg yolks, and plenty of sweetened condensed milk and fresh whipped cream.
Lemons are hybrids of several species in the genus Citrus, and are small trees native to Asia in the Rutaceae family. Lemons were brought to ancient Rome and were cited in early Arabic literature. They thrived as a horticultural crop, including as an ornamental in Genoa, and were introduced to the New World and Hispaniola by Columbus, eventually making their way to extensive plantings in Florida and California in the 18th and 19th centuries. By the 18th century, lemon juice and its vitamin C was used to help prevent scurvy on ocean voyages.
There are many uses for lemons besides our ArborEatum pie. Lemon pickles are staples for dining in India and neighboring countries. Leaves are used to flavor teas. Lemon is of course the base for the aperitif limoncello. Lemon oil is used for aromatherapy, the citric acid exceeding 5 percent in some cultivars is used for cleansers, and lemon byproducts are used for everything from deodorizers to biorational insecticides. But, let’s not spoil our appetites; enjoy a lemony version of key lime pie this holiday season.
The Crablandia II collection of ornamental Malus is one of the signature features in the Secrest Arboretum at the OSU Wooster campus. Crablandia is the premier collection of the International Ornamental Crabapple Society with its 19 nationwide plots of the National Crabapple Evaluation Program trials.
Secrest is also the worldwide authority for ornamental Malus for the Royal Horticultural Society and International Society of Horticultural Science in England. We feature crab apples with OSU Extension because of the more than $20 million dollar sales of crab apples annually in Ohio nurseries and garden centers and the need for apple scab resistance screening and other disease, pest and horticultural research.
By definition, crab apples are apple taxa with pome fruits under 2 inches in diameter at maturity. With 76 crab apple taxa in the replicated and randomized Crablandia plot and more throughout the OSU Wooster campus we have a full sense of the foliage, flower, fruit and form features of this small tree which attracts a wide audience during springtime bloom in late April.
The Secrest crab apples story even extends beyond the international, as in the final Challenger space flight, in which OARDC crab apple seeds were included after NASA called with a message of “Ohio State — we have a problem.”
Crab apple seeds replaced apple seeds too large for the Student Spaceflight Experiment and, with their germination back on earth after their exposure in space, the rest is history.
Crab apples are edible, as we learned in our ArborEatum feast with a rich and tart Dolgo Crabapple Barbecue Sauce a la Secrest Arboretum horticulturist and chef Paul Snyder paired with meatballs a la chef Katie Cochran. And remember, that crab apples have a number of unique advantages, bringing us to this Ode de Malus from the First Earl of Pome-Roy:
“There was a young wormling from Rome
Who yearned to make Malus his home
He searched and he searched
For a perch to besmirch
But crabapple was too tiny a pome.”
And make one of your New Year’s resolutions this year to come to Secrest Arboretum in Wooster this spring, say in mid to late April, come for the crab apple blooms, for as Shakespeare also said: “Prithee, take me to where the crabs grow.”
Jim Chatfield is a horticultural educator with Ohio State University Extension. If you have questions about caring for your garden, write: Jim Chatfield, Plant Lovers’ Almanac, Ohio State University Extension, 1680 Madison Ave., Wooster, OH 44691. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 330-466-0270. Please include your phone number if you write.