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Cross-Pollination: Fruit Trees as Metaphor

A nice side benefit of getting married (other than, you know, getting to share your life with the person you love) is that people give you thoughtful and useful gifts.One thoughtful and useful gift my now-husband and I recently received was a pair of young apple trees, which we have planted in the ...

Apple tree photograph by Lisa Bramen


A nice side benefit of getting married (other than, you know, getting to share your life with the person you love) is that people give you thoughtful and useful gifts.

One thoughtful and useful gift my now-husband and I recently received was a pair of young apple trees, which we have planted in the yard. If all goes well, we hope to soon have lots of little bundles of joy—by which I mean, of course, apple pies. And apple crisps. And, apple tarts, too, if only to prove wrong my colleague who teased me for registering for a tart pan. (Colleague: "How often do you bake tarts?" Me: "Never, because I don't have a tart pan.")

Aside from the practical benefits of the fruit trees, I appreciate the metaphorical sentiments behind the gift. Apples figure in the Adam and Eve story, of course, though that didn't turn out so great. But they also (as one of the gift-givers noted in the accompanying card) provide a lesson in cross-pollination. Trees of the Malus genus, like many other fruit-bearing plants, only produce (or produce better) fruit when cross-pollinated with another variety. Pollinators—especially honey bees—inadvertently carry pollen from flower to flower, allowing the commingling of genetic material that will produce stronger offspring. This is not so different from how humans and other animals reproduce (though instead of two different species, it takes one of each gender to grow a Homo sapiens bundle of joy).

But I don't think our friends were trying to give us the proverbial "birds and bees" talk (that was already covered years ago, in awkward sit-downs with the parents and in giggle-inducing school assemblies). Rather, they were saying, I think, that my spouse and I should see our differences as a positive that will ultimately make our relationship stronger.

After researching how to best plant and nurture our new trees, I could take this romantic line of thinking further: they need to be close enough (within 50 feet or so) for pollinators to travel easily between the trees, but not too close—everyone needs their space, after all. OK, I'll stop now.

I had always imagined having fruit trees of my own someday. Though my California hometown was hot, smoggy and blandly suburban, it was a fruit-foraging paradise. Lemon, pomegranate and avocado trees were common in the neighborhood. On one side, the neighbor's orange tree encroached on our backyard. Even better, the other next-door neighbors had a fig tree whose limbs hung tantalizingly close to our fence; all I had to do was boost myself up to pluck a ripe black teardrop-shaped fruit. I still sometimes dream of  those pilfered figs, as they are available in my adopted Northeastern home only rarely, and at exorbitant prices. So, though I can't grow figs here, apples are a pretty good alternative.

Interestingly, fig trees are one of the exceptions to the fruit cross-pollination rule, as Amanda wrote last summer: they self-pollinate, with the aid of a single species of wasp. The wasp and the fig tree are, literally, made for each other, and only each other. Can't live without the other.

Isn't that romantic?
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About Lisa Bramen
Lisa Bramen

Lisa Bramen was a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.com's Food and Think blog. She is based in northern New York and is also an associate editor at Adirondack Life magazine.

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