A Time for Everything: Spring Ephemerals and Pear Grafting
Timing is everything, they say. In our April forager’s gathering at Fox Haven, we saw that simple truth played out in the gears of life turning all around us. The low-lying, floppy-leafed Mayapples hurry to make its fruits before taller plants form a canopy and shade them out. The many spring ephemeral wildflowers, from the pale pink Virginia Spring Beauty (Claytonia Virginica) to the glossy yellow Celandine fig, were also taking advantage of April’s abundant sunlight to bloom and set seed before going dormant for the year.
As we walked together through a forest retention area, we recognized many other species coming up: underfoot, spring medicine in the form of garlic mustard, cleavers and violets; overhead, itty bitty yellow spicebush blossoms and dusky colored pawpaw flowers, which would bear gifts of spice and fruit later in the year.
We’d already missed the flowering of one early spring ephemeral, Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), but relocated some clumps of it from a gravelly roadside to our forager’s patch. While the flowers are a pure white with yellow pompom center, Taylor broke off a piece of the below-ground rhizome to reveal juicy bright red flesh, which indeed appeared to bleed from the wound! While the alkaloids in Bloodroot make for powerful medicine, they are also potentially toxic in higher doses. A mere drop or two of Bloodroot tincture in a mouthwash solution Lacey prepared for us was enough to produce an astringent aftertaste.
Our main task for the day, pear grafting, also came with an important lesson in timing. We were pretty much too late to successfully graft our trees at home, and would have to wait a year to try to get old trees to bear new fruit. The scion (an elegant word for a cutting of plant material joined to a stock in grafting) ideally should be taken from a tree when it’s dormant, and attached to its new host before the tree has woken up, typically early spring.
Luckily, Taylor had scion of a Kieffer pear taken at the right time of year, with some of its buds tightly closed. The ideal scion, Taylor explained, is a year-old branch cut to the length of a pencil, and straight enough to make a clean graft. The point of graft is point of change, with all the buds from that point on yielding the fruit type of the scion.
Taylor showed us how to whittle down the scion to a flat, smooth edge and wedge it into the existing tree branch to connect cambium to cambium. This type of graft, a cleft graft, is a go-to technique for similar-sized branches. Taylor next showed us a bark graft technique for growing a new variety from a tree stump, lopping off a young Bradford pear, and slipping the scion under its bark, which gave way easily this time of year. He finished the job with a special putty that would keep the graft airtight while the two tissues fused.
In working with the often vilified Bradford pear, we learned to see the strengths and weaknesses of different species as opportunities rather than battles to pick. It made me think of the “weed warriors” who campaign against “aggressive” species that replicate too heartily and make it hard for other species to compete. As Taylor pointed out, often these campaigns don’t bother to fill the void left behind with one of the preferred underdog species, so they ultimately end up unsuccessful. By using the Bradford pear’s super-spreader capabilities, we could take advantage of its hearty rootstock and prolific branches to bear fat, delicious fruit I was already cooking into a pear crisp with spicebush berry in my mind’s eye.
We also learned that any variety can be grafted to a tree of the same species; just that week I had read about a master grafter in India who had grafted over 100 varieties of mango onto a single tree. Some species, like the almonds, cherries, and peaches in the Rose family, are also close enough cousins to be successfully grafted to one another. I immediately thought of the hazelnut in my urban community garden. While having both male and female reproductive parts on a single tree, the hazelnut needs two different cultivars to bear nuts, and sadly, we just had the one. With a graft of another hazelnut, our tree could finally yield nuts! Alas, that will have to wait another year. In the meantime, there was so much more beauty and learning ahead in the year to enjoy.
Written by April Thompson, @prillytee on Instagram
April Thompson is a Washington, DC based writer, gardener, foodie and forager. Working as a freelance writer for more than 20 years, April has covered food, travel, sustainability, gardening, foraging and other subjects for dozens of publications, including her ongoing column in Natural Awakenings magazine. She has taught workshops on wild edible plants, fighting food waste and related topics for Knowledge Commons DC, Rooting DC and other organizations. She is a founding member of the Bruce Monroe Community Garden, a member of the Mycological Association of Washington, and an alum of the UDC Master Gardener program. She currently serves as Director of Marketing and Sales for Bloom, a recycled biosolids fertilizer developed by DC Water.