Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Lotus eaters


As we left the Brooklyn Botanic Garden by its southern, Flatbush Avenue exit, we passed this tree. It was perhaps 20 feet tall or more, and covered with what at first appeared to be blue-black fruit. I screeched to a halt. November, fruit. Limited possibilities. The colour was an illusion created by a powdery sheen; underneath they were a deep orange-brown, the shape, distinctly persimmonish. I looked at the name on the tree: Diospyros. A persimmon indeed, but new to me. I can't remember the species name, but 'ebony' was in the common name - a photo on Flickr by Rebecca Bullene, the former BBG website editor, identifies it as Diospyros lotus. Native to eastern Asia and hardy to USDA Zone 5.

So, that's a date plum, one of the oldest cultivated plants, with fruit so sweet that it is credited as the preferred meal of Homer's lotus eaters.

"For nine days I was driven by fierce winds over the teeming sea: but on the tenth we set foot on the shores of the Lotus-eaters, who eat its flowery food. On land we drew water, and my friends ate by the ships. Once we had tasted food and drink, I sent some of the men inland to discover what kind of human beings lived there: selecting two and sending a third as herald. They left at once and came upon the Lotus-eaters, who had no thought of killing my comrades, but gave them lotus to eat. Those who ate the honey-sweet lotus fruit no longer wished to bring back word to us, or sail for home. They wanted to stay with the Lotus-eaters, eating the lotus, forgetting all thoughts of return. I dragged those men back to the shore myself by force, while they wept, and bound them tight in the hollow ships, pushing them under the benches. Then I ordered my men to embark quickly on the fast craft, fearing that others would eat the lotus and forget their homes. They boarded swiftly and took their place on the benches then sitting in their rows struck the grey water with their oars."

Yes, really!

I knew none of this, standing there, but had to taste one. I thought it was like an English toffee, a very soft, fresh one. CS Lewis describes a fruit like this somewhere in his Narnia chronicles. The Magicians' Nephew, I think . Someone drops a toffee in the new place that Aslan is making, where the soil is so new and rich that the toffee bursts into life as a tree. Unexpected pleasures.

5 comments:

  1. I hope you saved the pit for you, or another, to plant it.

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  2. Lovely! Thank you for this divine blend of delicious historical botany.

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  3. We have sidewalks in our neighborhood and just up the street a persimmon tree drops its fruit right onto the walkway. Yesterday I noticed orange-brown splotches on my floor. Somebody had tracked in persimmons. The taste of this particular variety isn't all that wonderful, either.

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  4. Mmmmmm. Toffee, fruit, adventure, exploration, antiquity. All in one tree. My persimmon is Diospyros ("god's pears") virginiana, and it has yet to set any fruit. When it ever does, however, I do not expect toffee!

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  5. Two of my favorite books. I would love to taste that taste.

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