Saturday, October 29, 2011

Pumpkin Love II

2011 was the first opportunity I have had in decades to grow pumpkins in the usual fashion. Although the tiny plot had for years been a building site, and in spite of a very cool and dry summer, and unfamiliar seed varieties, there are now several fruits sitting in the conservatory, waiting to be eaten, none of them very large, but usable. I tried the rouge vif d'étampes, and after initial alarm at the colour of the infants—they start out a very pale yellow, as if they were going to drop off—was delighted with their deep rouge blush of ripeness. I use the word 'rouge' advisedly because the red skins give the impression of having been rubbed with the old-fashioned cosmetic. But I'm leery of carving a jack-o-lantern: in spite of the explosion of interest in Hallowe'en in the UK, some people here take great exception to them, not so much because of fundamentalist leanings, but because the roots of dark magic run millennia deep in this part of the world, and ghosts and poltergeists are taken quite seriously. In any event, pumpkin-carving has become fine art, and my crude attempts would embarrass a child!

[First posted July 6, 2008 while living in Alaska]

As noted in the post of June 23, our cold spring and cool summer gave me the idea of bringing some of the vegetables inside, among them a trinity of pumpkin plants. I have always loved pumpkins, not only with a child's glee at jack-o-lanterns, but also with the ever-renewed astonishment that a small seed can produce such a structurally elaborate plant, with its dimorphic blossoms and spectacular fruit. While compassion for shattered lenses and jammed shutters has meant that few photographs of me exist, one of my favorites spared the camera in its taking as I managed to pass as the fourth jack-o-lantern in a row of three specimens of the genuine article.

My fascination is perhaps not as extreme as that of the boy in the short story who succumbed to trout envy, sticking his head under water for longer and longer periods of time until one day he grew gills, slipped into the stream and swam off. I would rather eat a pie than be one. But all the same, my attraction to these plants takes up hours of planning, watering, pruning and watching, a prickly vegetative lectio divina.

I'm happy to report that my pumpkin friends have so far done very well for themselves. They have adapted to the garden window and last week began producing the small globes that are potential fruits, along with many flower buds to provide the pollen essential to their fulfillment. But a dark cloud soon threatened all this cucurbitian bliss. There are no flying insects in my house and I was not about to enslave a bumblebee to do the work of pollination at the cost of its life. To complicate matters, the nubile fruits and their would-be lovers began blooming out of sync. Somehow I had to gather and save the pollen from the male flowers until a female flower bloomed.

In his essay, "How Flowers Changed the World," Loren Eiseley remarks: "Flowers changed the face of the planet. Without them, the world we know—even man himself—would never have existed . . . . Today we know that the appearance of the flowers contained also the equally mystifying emergence of man." But even Eiseley couldn't prepare me for the startling similarity of the pumpkin flowers' sexual organs to our own. It was with some delicacy, then, if not outright hesitation at invading their privacy, that I applied a Q-tip first to one and then, a day or two later, to the other—and waited to see if the little green ball would begin to swell or wither, yellow, and collapse.

Self-knowledge is often painful: I am no good at pumpkin sex. I really don't think it has anything to do with having been celibate for 31 years; you don't forget the basics. But one by one the first few pumpkin globes that suffered my ministrations wrinkled, paled and had to be cut off to encourage the plants to further efforts.

I was terribly apologetic. The pumpkins in their turn were very forgiving. Realizing they had a dork for a caretaker, they decided to start blossoming in sync. This made the process much easier as I could apply flower to flower, all the while blushing and turning my head to one side so as to preserve some semblance of the proprieties. Bees are much more discreet.

This technique seems to have succeeded: there is now a rapidly expanding fruit on each of the vines. I rejoice over them daily, hoping and praying that nothing harms them. I gently pinch off new buds to focus energy; in this environment even one pumpkin per plant would be an amazing outcome.

There is little more to do now except watch the miracle unfold and hope that I don't drop the watering can as I reach over the fattening orbs to give the tomatoes a drink. We're past the solstice; autumn is rushing toward us. The fireweed is about to bloom, and when their petals reach the top of the stalk, winter will be only six weeks away.


Blogger Bo said...

Hilarious, and wonderful! I'm all for a bit of the unheimlich, personally, though I'd draw the line at dark magic.

9:16 am, October 30, 2011  

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