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Pliny to the moon…

December 14, 2009

I was doing some research this weekend about some tropical fruit propagation (like ya do) when I came across a name that made me do a double-take.

“Oooo,” I said. “I have to use that somewhere.” And as I don’t have a novel in the works – though if I did it just MIGHT be a steampunk drama involving a young horticulturalist and his gene-splicing lady biologist lover in the late 1800’s – I’m just going to have to settle for planting it in the blog.

Pliny Reasoner, horticulturalistHe was wise.  He was the elder.  And he changed agriculture in the U.S. forever.

Pliny Reasoner – Founder of Reasoner Bros. Royal Palm Nursery in Oneco, FL in 1882 (at the age of 19) and a prominent horticulturalist of the American Victorian era. The other half of the nursery was his brother Egbert, who continued the business after Pliny’s untimely death from Yellow Fever in 1888, just one year after they published their first catalog.  It would seem the name was a touched cursed, too.  Egbert’s second son was named for Pliny (Pliny Reasoner, II) and accidentally killed himself with a hunting rifle at the age of 15 (the gruesome account can be read in a newspaper clipping here.).  Pliny II’s older brother Norman would end up taking over the nursery after Egbert’s death in the 1920’s.

Egbert ended up becoming a prominent name in horticulture, maintaining international plant connections that were the envy of nurserymen everywhere. But brother Pliny is the one credited with the founding of the nursery industry in Florida, the popularization of both the hibiscus and the mango in the United States, and for his love of the sapote, a tropical fruit with a frustratingly long seedling-to-harvest time span – eight to 10 years.

Hollywood 11-19-09The sapotes are in the center pile. Pineapple guava to the left.  Meyer lemons to the right.

Pliny was a man a little ahead of his time. He could hardly guess in the late 1800’s that the sapote would become immensely popular in Florida thanks to a 20th century influx of Cuban and Dominican migrants who craved the tropical fruit’s taste –  a luscious and creamy banana/peach/ginger/mango/passionfruit that smells like sweet tropical flowers.

Hollywood Market 12-13-09Sapote at this past Sunday’s Hollywood Farmers Market

Pliny comes into my radar because sapotes are currently in season here in Southern California. I’ll requote my LA Weekly Squid Ink article:

With an eight to ten year span before you achieve harvestable fruit from a newly planted seedling, it’s no wonder the sapote is practically revered when the fruit finally makes an appearance. The trees sometimes tower overhead at over 100’ tall, dangling a beautiful light green fruit with flesh that is lightly sweet and tropical, tasting like a blend between peaches, bananas, and plumeria, assuming plumeria had a taste. The fruit’s long history also makes for a bit of romance – it’s credited with sustaining Cortez and his crew on their long march from Mexico City to Honduras. Frozen, the fruit flesh is like a sherbet – both creamy and refreshing with a gingery zing. It also makes a delightful tropical jam. But it doesn’t hurt if you simply spoon it out of fruit halves warmed slightly from being cupped in your hand.

I hadn’t seen it in huge numbers at the local markets until the past few years or so – the trees were trying to catch up to demand. Now I can count on them every December. Ours likely didn’t come from Pliny’s stocks – his were largely Cuban in origin and didn’t achieve real viability until demand grew with Florida’s Hispanic population. Our sapotes are mostly from imported trees from central and southern Mexico. But a nod goes to Pliny nonetheless. One for having a really cool name (really, it just oozes character). And another for being a trailblazer in a world where I spend a great deal of my free time.  Like the young dead Keats, I wonder what he would have accomplished if he had lived a little longer.  Maybe we would have seen yuzu on our shores a little earlier and it wouldn’t cost a small fortune per fruit.  I’m just sayin’…

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